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Trump bets big on Michigan with rally on GOP debate night as UAW strike continues

Seven Republicans will take the debate stage Wednesday for the second GOP presidential primary debate in California.

Former President Donald Trump, the undisputed front-runner, will not be one of them. He instead will skip the event and travel to Michigan where he plans to court the vote of autoworkers.

It's the second debate that Trump is missing, disappointing many Republican voters who have been eager to see how rivals stand up to Trump when they're side-by-side on the same stage.

But veteran Republican strategist Sean Walsh sees it as an opportunity for the other candidates and Republican voters who are looking for an alternative to Trump.

It takes some of the "game show" elements out of the evening, Walsh said.

It gives the other candidates more time to speak about their priorities instead of responding to Trump. This time around, though, unlike in Milwaukee for the first debate, those who seek to distinguish themselves from the former president are likely to face a more sympathetic audience.

"I don't think we'll have the circus audience that we had at the last debate that Fox News held," Walsh predicted. "I think that Chris Christie was going to make some very important points concerning former President Trump and he was shouted down and did not have the opportunity to do that."

It was not just former New Jersey Gov. Christie who got shouted down, of course. Any candidate who spoke out against Trump was booed.

Walsh, who served in the administrations of both former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said the debate on the grounds of Reagan's presidential library will also be opportunity for the candidates to "win back the hearts and minds of mainstream Republicans" — like him — who feel that Trump can't beat President Biden.

Former President Donald Trump arrives at a rally on April 02, 2022 near Washington, Michigan.
Scott Olson / Getty Images
Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump arrives at a rally on April 2, 2022, near Washington, Mich.

Trump is instead going to Michigan where he'll speak with autoworkers — another sign that he's looking ahead to the general election and focusing on Biden.

It's also a sign of how important this group of voters — and this state — are to both campaigns in the looming general election.

Trump's visit comes just a day after Biden was in Michigan where he joined union autoworkers on the picket line.

Michigan voters helped both Trump and Biden win the White House — Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. Those elections were largely clinched with union voters. Biden won those voters by 20 points in 2020. Trump lost those voters overall, but by a much narrower margin, in 2016. He went on the win the state by just over 10,000 votes.

President Biden addresses striking members of the UAW on a picket line outside a GM plant in Belleville, Michigan, on September 26, 2023.
JIM WATSON / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden addresses striking members of the UAW on a picket line outside a GM plant in Belleville, Michigan, on September 26, 2023.

On Tuesday, Biden spoke through a bullhorn on the picket line. He told workers that they had saved the auto industry during tough times.

The auto companies are now doing "incredibly well," he said, adding that workers should be doing the same.

"You deserve what you earned," Biden said. "And you've earned a hell of a lot more than you're getting paid now."

Biden likes to call himself the most pro-union president ever. Trump has a more complicated past with unions.

In recent weeks, the former president has argued that he's always worked for autoworkers — and will continue to fight for them if he wins a second term.

In Michigan, he's expected to deliver a broader message. Trump will likely attack Biden's economic policies, particularly his focus on electric vehicles.

He's also expected to tell workers that he'd do better protecting the auto industry — and therefore their jobs, union or not.

"With Biden, it doesn't matter what hourly wages they get, in three years there will be no autoworker jobs as they will all come out of China and other countries," Trump said in a statement Tuesday, responding to Biden joining the picket line.

Trump's not expected to join a union picket line. But despite his mixed experience with union labor, he has had success courting blue collar workers away from Democrats.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has served as an informal adviser to Trump, says that's an important distinction. While Biden may have the support of union leadership, he doesn't necessarily have the support of those on the assembly line.

"Trump will do better with working-class voters than Biden will. That's the great irony," Gingrich said. "The establishment is for the old order. So, the UAW leadership is for the old order. Their membership's probably going to vote for Trump."

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.