Kasich targets Trump lead

Leonard N. Fleming, Chad Livengood, and Keith Laing

Ohio Gov. John Kasich tried to close the gap Monday with Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump as he held two southeast Michigan town hall events before Tuesday’s primary.

With his wife Karen and surrogates such as Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Kasich spoke to a capacity crowd in a Grosse Pointe Woods school gym as well as to a Monroe Community College audience. He touched on topics ranging from repairing crumbling infrastructure to addressing depression among teens to avoiding “personal attacks” against the New York billionaire.

“If you want to win a voter that likes Trump, you give them an answer that’s real,” Kasich said in Monroe. “Because they want to know how their wages are going to go up. They want to know how their job’s going to be secured. They want to know that if people cheat in a trade deal, somebody’s going to stick up for them.”

Trump has led in recent Michigan polls. Michigan has 59 delegates, most of whom will be divvied up proportionally among the candidates who get at least 15 percent of the vote.

As he prepared to campaign Monday in Mississippi, Trump tweeted a campaign message to Michigan voters after hammering “stupid” trade policies and Ford Motor Co.’s manufacturing of cars in Mexico during Friday stops in Warren and Cadillac.

“It was great being in Michigan. Remember, I am the only presidential candidate who will bring jobs back to the U.S. and protect car industry!” Trump said late Monday afternoon on Twitter.

By contrast, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont fought back Monday against Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton’s charge that he failed to support the auto bailout. In Metro Detroit stops, Sanders noted he supported an auto bailout bill, but not the $700 billion mortgage lending and Wall Street bailout bill that eventually was tapped for saving General Motors and Chrysler.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has the second highest number of delegates, was to make a last-minute campaign visit Monday night to Grand Rapids after stumping in Mississippi. But his campaign didn’t indicate whether he would stay in the state Tuesday.

Cruz was flying up from Mississippi and was expected at Noto’s restaurant in Cascade, Michigan. An initial batch of 700 tickets “sold out in minutes,” according to Michigan chair and state Sen. Patrick Colbeck. Organizers ended up giving out 1,200.

“There’s momentum building, big time,” said Colbeck, who acknowledged the campaign would still have to work its “tail off” to win the state Tuesday.

“I’m talking to a lot of folks that are flipping from Trump to Cruz, and a lot of folks from Rubio to Cruz too,” he said. “…People are realizing that you’ve got to consolidate or else we’re going to be looking at Trump, and I think most folks realize that would be bad.”

Kasich, meanwhile, has staked his presidential primary survival on a weeklong bus tour of Michigan before his home state holds a March 15 primary that he predicts he will win over Trump.

At the Grosse Pointe Woods event, the 63-year-old former congressman had an exchange with a voter who said he would support Kasich or Democrat Bernie Sanders on Tuesday. Kasich quieted the boos from the crowd to say he, like the U.S. senator from Vermont, is a maverick who upsets party bosses.

“I consider that to be a compliment,” Kasich said at the University Liggett School. “Outside of my wife, no one tells me what to do. I’m not an order taker from the establishment.”

Kasich called the Islamic State terrorist group dangerous but said he would be smart about getting involved in another world conflict and promised to get more Muslim allies involved in the Middle East. “We have to win the battle of bullets but we have to win the war of ideas,” he said.

If elected president, he promised to get people in Congress to “work together” and “remind them they are Americans before Republicans or Democrats.”

Kasich was slated to give an evening speech at the Oakland County Republican Party Lincoln Day dinner in Troy, where he planned to trumpet the recent endorsement of Congressman Mike Bishop, R-Rochester.

Rose Marchese, 51, of Grosse Pointe Park, who has a child in University Liggett School and two others who graduated, said she was undecided coming into the forum but liked Kasich’s approach.

“Now I feel like I could possibly vote for him,” Marchese said. “I love everything he stands for. The way he talked to the kids about the bullying, the respect, how to treat people ... these other campaigns are setting a poor example for our future. I think he touched a soft spot for me today and won me over.”

The west Michigan stop was Cruz’s first event in the state since last Thursday’s debate in Detroit. Cruz, who is not advertising in Michigan, has otherwise not campaigned in the Great Lakes State, focusing his efforts on winning Mississippi and Idaho.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has suffered campaign setbacks in primaries and caucuses in the past week, was trying to shore up support Monday in his home state, which has a primary a week from Tuesday that could make or break his White House hopes. On Sunday, he won the Puerto Rico primary and all of its 23 delegates.

U.S Rep. John Moolenaar, a Midland Republican who is co-chairing Rubio’s Michigan campaign, acknowledged Monday the 44-year-old senator is focusing his efforts on fending off Trump and Cruz in Florida on March 15.

“Florida is a key primary for the campaign right now,” said Moolenaar, who was campaigning for Rubio in Metro Detroit. “That is going to be a strong focus in the week ahead.”

Moolenaar said Rubio has a “mixed bag” weekend with losses Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine, but a victory in Puerto Rico’s primary, where he collected all 23 of island territory’s delegates.

Trump leads the nomination race with 384 delegates, followed by Cruz at 300, Rubio at 151 and Kasich at 37.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter:@leonardnfleming

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