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Michigan used as presidential candidates’ last stand

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DETROIT — It was Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — not Michigan — that hogged the spotlight of the first presidential debates. For Warren that may end up being a good thing. For Sanders, maybe not.

Medicare for All. Health care for illegal immigrants. Government erasing student debt. CNN pitted the field’s frontrunners to argue the workability of their large-spending plans against candidates like John Delaney, Steve Bullock and Tim Ryan, who called the plans “impossible promises” and “wish list economics.”

Warren fought back on the argument that the Democrats need to be the “party of big structural change” if things are going to change. Sanders’ fiery personality and wild hand gestures earned him the gif of the night when he got sucked into a Kermit the Frog moment with John Hickenlooper.

“Bernie was one word away from having a heart attack,” said Detroit political consultant Mario Morrow. “This is his last opportunity, and it’s slipping away. He just gets too upset. He tried to address the issues, but he just doesn’t have the demeanor.”

Sure, Michigan got its share of shout-outs. Self-help author Marianne Williamson said Flint is the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of cities in need of revamped infrastructure. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., gave Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Fix The Damn Roads” slogan a mention.

Ryan went back to the well about union workers’ losing their private health care under Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal.

But Detroit’s debate won’t be remembered for Jennifer Granholm making her return to Michigan as a CNN commentator. It won’t be known for former Maryland Congressman John Delaney commending Detroit’s public sector for working with the private sector and non-profits to turn around its downtown.

The Michigan debate will be the last time this cycle, at least, when 20 potential Democratic candidates will compete for time in a debate format that went at least 30 minutes too long.

It’s the last stand for as many as half of the candidates on stage. Only eight candidates have met the Democratic National Committee’s high standards for the September debate, and it’s not expected many more will.

For as many times as Amy Klobuchar and Steve Bullock talked about how they win in traditionally “red,” or Republican, areas, neither will have the opportunity without raising more money from a larger pool of contributors very quickly.

It was survival of the fittest time in Detroit, and unlike the first debate in Miami, CNN put a quick stop to interruptions and let frontrunners like Warren and Sanders get more than their fair share of follow-up answers.

Having a debate in our home state is cool. We’d like to think that we’ll remember Sanders for blaming Detroit’s bankruptcy on “disastrous trade policies” under former administrations. Maybe we’d remember how Sanders reiterated a couple of times how he brought a handful of diabetics across the border to Windsor to by insulin at a 10th of the price.

Instead, Sanders’ stewing beet red face is a more vivid image.

“Bernie Sanders sounds like the old angry man who was in that “Network” movie: ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,’” said Suzy Avery, co-director of the Michigan Political Leadership Program.

We’d like to think Beto O’Rourke’s called for more wind and solar energy jobs in states such as Michigan will be his most memorable moment. Instead, the format prevented the former Texas congressman from getting verbally beat down by Julian Castro, as he did in Miami.

Michigan would rather have debates than not have them, to be sure. Whitmer got her air time on CNN, talking about Great Lakes issues.

Issues of clean water, Asian carp, decaying public infrastructure and plans to further economic opportunities in urban areas have no better platform than Michigan. We heard from Washington governor Jay Inslee highlight Detroit’s “most polluted zip code of 48217.”

Who knew Williamson raised her daughter in Birmingham and Grosse Pointe from 1998 to 2006 as she worked as a minister in Detroit and Warren? We’d have never known unless she was in Detroit opining that the lead poisoning in a public water supply in a poor, urban city with a high African American population like Flint would have never happened in high-brow, white Grosse Pointe.

But Ryan’s references to Michigan’s working class and their health care was his among his last attempts to stay in the race a few more months.

For other frontrunners such as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, references to Michigan are geared toward winning primary votes on March 10, 2020, and, possibly General Election voters on Nov. 5, 2020.

In any event, Michigan and Detroit was — at best the means — to the end. And for some candidates, it’s the end of the line.

(Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS is at melinnky@gmail.com.)

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