In Michigan, Trump's bluntness and Kasich's compassion vie for the hearts of GOP voters

The disgruntled and fearful turf of Michigan spawned two divergent Republican campaigns as Tuesday's primary neared.

Here, as everywhere else, Donald Trump pushed the negative, assaulting politicians as corrupt, trade negotiators as stupid and jobs as a faint mirage unless he is elected. To "Make America Great Again," as Trump promises to do, requires convincing voters of just how lousy things are now.

Countering him is the Dr. Phil candidacy of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose campaign events here are as much counseling session as political discussion, often interrupted by people who have suffered grievous ills and want from him a hug and a firm assertion that everything is going to be all right.

Weeks ago, Kasich's campaign talked of victory here; last week, the candidate conceded the state to Trump. But the last few days have brought indications that Kasich is moving up; the question is whether it will be enough to vault him past Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, with whom he is now essentially tied for second in the state, which doles out delegates proportionally.

Still, it would take a Trump collapse for him to lose Michigan, a state that with its many problems — a huge loss in manufacturing jobs among them — is practically built for his message that business acumen is necessary in the next president.

Trump's business background and his dismissal of the political class attracted Macomb County real estate agent Nicole Pyne to a loud and enthusiastic rally Friday in Warren.

"Change!" she said quickly when asked why she was there.

"A lot of my friends have been out of work for a long time, or are working at minimum-wage jobs," she said, listing family members and close friends who had lost their homes in the state's economic downturn. "I don't necessarily agree with everything he says, but for the most part I like what he says."

Kasich draws people like Beth Gersch of Grosse Pointe Park, who came to see the candidate speak Monday at her son's high school in Grosse Pointe Woods.

"Republicans have a problem with nastiness," said Gersch, who has not firmly settled on a candidate. "Kasich has not stooped to that."

She also likes his view that the federal government should turn over programs to the states.

"I like the concept of keeping decisions local," she said.

Surveys of voters all have Trump ahead — 41% in an NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll published Sunday, 36% in a Monmouth University poll released Monday. A Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Trump at 38%, Cruz and Kasich at 21% and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at 12%.

With the exception of Thursday's debate in Detroit, Cruz and Rubio largely have abandoned the state, moving South and West to places where they have a better chance of picking up delegates. Trump also has spent little time here. Kasich has been campaigning almost nonstop, but he is a fairly late arrival; early on, he put all of his attention on New Hampshire, where he finished second.

Michigan has gotten less attention than its large number of delegates might predict because of the candidates' needs elsewhere, said Ed Sarpolus, a veteran pollster in the state.

Trump is helped, Sarpolus said, by the state's history of supporting candidates decried by the rest of the field, such as George Wallace and Pat Buchanan, whose campaigns form something of a template for Trump's.

"If you look at anyone off-the-wall, Michigan is behind him," Sarpolus said.

Trump's support cuts across demographic lines in Michigan because discontent and fear cut across those same lines. This is the state that, more than three decades ago, birthed the Reagan Democrats, the blue-collar Democrats who gravitated to the Californian because of his confidence and message of strength, and helped him to two terms in the White House. Those voters are gone now, but their political descendants remain in Michigan's battered towns and cities.

They are "looking for someone to listen to them, to hear their voice," Sarpolus said. "You don't have to tell them much. Basically, that's all Trump's done. He's not talked about issues."

Indeed, in both the Detroit debate and his Friday appearance, Trump was more intent on settling scores with his fellow candidates — labeling them "Little Marco" and "Lyin' Ted" — than talking in any great detail about policy.

"These guys are gonna do nothing because they were bought and paid for," he said of the two competitors. (He has ignored Kasich.)

Trump is a national brand here, his bravado on his "Apprentice" television show brought to the political stage. Kasich, in contrast, is an old-style politician, trumpeting the advantages of experience like no other Republican candidate. He's playing on his Midwestern life and the ethnic background of his Ukrainian-Croatian family in an area of the country where many families have similar ties.

Last week during a visit at a Ukrainian community center, he engaged in a long discussion of how his name should be pronounced KAW-sich instead of KAY-sick, which is what he uses. He was introduced as "John, not Ivan."

He had barely gotten into his talk when he was brought up short by a question from a woman named Mindy, whose son committed suicide nine years ago. As she told Kasich about a program she built to show kindness to others — as a tribute to her son — he gathered her in a hug. He talked of his own grief after his parents were killed by a drunk driver.

"How we go past these things that are so horrible, horrible, black, dark, as bad as it gets and have joy?" he asked. "The only thing I can say to you is it gets down to believing or not, believing that the Lord's in control in some way. And if you have that deep knowledge — and I'm not sure I have it.... But if you really believe that's he's now in a place he wouldn't come back to if in fact he had a chance, it helps you to kind of put it in perspective. Because you have to have a good life. And you can't carry this for 50 years."

On Monday in Grosse Pointe Woods, he talked at length about bullying, and how important it was to stand between the bully and the bullied.

Kasich's surge, if there really is one, may depend on whether voters are in the mood for the more complicated strategy of compassion that Kasich is forwarding or the blunt, take-no-prisoners approach of Trump.

Pyne, the real estate agent at the Trump event, liked Kasich too. But she liked Trump more.

The night before, Trump had offended many with an allusion to his anatomy in the Detroit debate. He also squabbled endlessly with Cruz and Rubio. But Pyne was not dissuaded.

"I'd rather have someone with no filter than someone who pussyfoots around," she said.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 08, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "The lure of Trump's bluntness, Kasich's empathy" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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