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Finley: Mackinac matters, even without Trump

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Here’s the most important thing to know about this weekend’s state Republican Party convention on Mackinac Island: Donald Trump won’t be there.

That means the media circus that travels with the GOP front-runner won’t be on the island, either. It’ll most likely be with The Donald in South Carolina and Iowa.

But does that also mean that Michigan’s biennial two-day gathering is irrelevant?

“No, it absolutely still matters,” says Paul Welday, a Republican strategist. “It’s a first class event. A lot of serious candidates will be on the island.”


The lineup is Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. Without Trump around, they may have a rare chance to be heard. “Trump is media Velcro,” Welday says. “Everyone sticks to him.”

Particularly the media. Still, Mackinac will draw a fair amount of national coverage — Fox News is sending a crew, as is CNN — and those candidates slated to attend won’t have to fight as hard for attention.

Coming to an event like Mackinac and making an impression is vital to those candidates slogging along at 3, 5, 8 percent of the vote. At some point, rationality will return to this campaign, and contenders with the credentials to win a general election will rise.

“This is going to be a long process,” says Michigan pollster Steve Mitchell. “Over time, the anti-Trump vote will coalesce around one or two candidates, and you want to be in a position to be one of those candidates.”

By the time the presidential primaries reach Michigan on March 8, the field should be significantly winnowed by voting in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and the largely southern Super Tuesday states on March 1. Michigan is the last state where delegates will be rewarded proportionally. A candidate doesn’t have to win to come away with a satisfying pile of delegates.

After Michigan, the primaries are winner-take-all and it will be harder for lesser candidates to hang on. So the vote here should help clarify where the anti-Trump vote is going to land.

It’s a particularly important state for the Midwestern hopefuls, including Kasich and Walker, who may not play as well down south.

“Mackinac will give those candidates an opportunity to talk to Michigan,” Mitchell says. “And they actually have a chance of delivering their message without being overwhelmed by the Trump spectacle.”

And it will be a major test for Jeb Bush, who has locked up most of the state’s big money Republicans. The Bushes have a curious relationship with Michigan. They’ve always raised tons of money here, but in 1988 George H.W. Bush faced a fight with Pat Robertson that split the convention, and in 2000, George W. Bush lost to John McCain.

A year ago, a state party convention lineup that featured the likes of Bush, Paul, Walker and Cruz would have seemed to be a heavyweight weekend.

Then along came Trump, and hard on his heels Ben Carson, and nothing at this stage of the campaign looks the way it’s supposed to.

But for a couple of days on Mackinac Island, serious candidates will discuss serious issues without being goaded by ringmaster Trump into insults and inanities. It may be a preview of what the presidential campaign will look like when — and if — voters regain their senses.


Follow Nolan Finley at, on Twitter at nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.