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GOP candidates debate while Trump meets with autoworkers in Michigan

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What are we learning about the choice facing Republican primary voters? Seven Republican candidates appeared in a debate last night in California. Donald Trump did not. In national polling averages, the former president leads all rivals by a margin of 40 points or more. He also leads all challengers in indictments, with four. Trump held his own event in Michigan, and we now bring these events together on MORNING EDITION. NPR correspondents watched them in case you didn't get to. Danielle Kurtzleben is in California, Don Gonyea in Michigan. Welcome to you both.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What was the debate like, Danielle?

KURTZLEBEN: It was chaotic. There was a lot of crosstalk. You had seven candidates onstage, all of them far behind Donald Trump and all of them really trying to stand out. And it just got messy. There are some moments that a lot of listeners who didn't watch the debate will nevertheless hear or see GIFed or meme'd all over the internet, I'm sure.

One of the sharpest exchanges was between former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. She was criticizing him for having joined - for him explaining that he had joined TikTok to appeal to younger voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media apps that we could have. And what you've got - I - honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.

KURTZLEBEN: But still, despite all of the sound and fury, there were - it's hard to really say there was a standout candidate who really articulated themselves, who made their case that they should be president. I'm not sure how much clarity Republican voters got.

INSKEEP: Well, I want to ask about policy, about substance on that because we're talking about people who want to govern the country for four years. Did you get a sense of any differences among the seven or differences between them and former President Trump about what they would do if elected?

KURTZLEBEN: Among the seven, not a lot. There was a lot of anti-Biden rhetoric, a lot of pro-immigration-enforcement - more enforcement on the southern border, for example. So there was a lot of that. Now, when it comes to between the seven and Trump, there was some taking aim at Trump. There was some criticism of the spending during his administration.

Also, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis criticized him for Trump's unclear abortion stance. Trump has said lately that abortion causes Republicans to lose elections, but he won't say quite what policy he supports. Now, DeSantis, meanwhile, has signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida, and that is on very much the tighter end.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, let's hear what Trump had to say. Don Gonyea, what did you witness and listen to in Michigan?

GONYEA: The event was at a small automotive supplier, a factory in Macomb County that's half-hour north of the city or so. Trump did not talk about the debate at all. He said he was there with a vision for a revival of American nationalism. He accused President Biden of killing the auto industry. He promised to put tariffs in place to protect that industry.

It's notable, Steve, that he came here with a message for UAW members who are on strike, and this was a nonunion shop. And over and over, he returned to the ongoing transition to electric vehicles, saying it would be such a failure, that it would completely wipe out the industry. This is where he mentioned the strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: To the striking workers, I support you and your goal of fair wages and greater stability, and I truly hope you get a fair deal for yourselves and your families. But if your union leaders will not demand that Crooked Joe repeal his electric vehicle mandate immediately, then it doesn't matter what hourly wage you get. It just doesn't make a damn bit of difference because in two to three years, you will not have one job in this state.

INSKEEP: OK. You mentioned the United Auto Workers who are on strike. He referred to striking workers. Were they listening?

GONYEA: The room was full, maybe 500 people or so - a rough guess. There were UAW members there. They stood on risers in the front on either side of the stage. Still, they were nowhere near the majority in the room - maybe 1 in 5 or so. And Trump did keep circling back to the fact that the UAW leadership has not yet endorsed a candidate for 2024. Give a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Your leadership should endorse me, and I will not say a bad thing about them again, and they will have done their job. They will have done a proper job.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's what Trump was saying in Michigan. Danielle, did Trump come up on the debate stage that you were watching in California?

KURTZLEBEN: Not a lot. But the fact that he was missing was the topic of some attacks from a couple of people. One was Florida Governor DeSantis. Here he was.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record.

KURTZLEBEN: And former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie likewise attacked Trump for this. He specifically said that Trump was afraid to defend his record, afraid to go to the debate and defend his record. And no doubt, Christie was trying to goad Trump. Trump, of course, hates being called weak or afraid in any way.

INSKEEP: So, Don, we've heard from the seven candidates in California. We've heard from former President Trump. Danielle has indicated there were not a lot of policy differences illuminated. So I guess everyone is more or less on Donald Trump's page. And there is a question about who would lead the Republican Party in that direction. How does that contrast with the party of Ronald Reagan, who was nodded to by the location of the debate? This was the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

GONYEA: Absolutely. And Reagan's Air Force One, which is massive, is on display right in the room where the debate took place. But most of the Reagan references came from the moderators in the questions they asked. There were certainly nods to Reagan from some of the candidates. But mostly, what really becomes clear at an event like this and at candidate speeches around the country is that when it comes to Reagan's signature issues - foreign policy, the promotion of free trade, even immigration - the GOP of today has moved far from the things that Reagan espoused.

INSKEEP: NPR's Don Gonyea is in Michigan. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben is in California. Really appreciate your insights this morning. Thanks to you both.

GONYEA: Thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.