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Michigan's important primary

Presidential nominating contests these days remind me of Japanese sumo wrestling matches.

In Sumo, there can be hours of ritual buildup before a so-called athletic match that lasts, on average, 90 seconds.

In this year’s presidential contest, we’ve had months and months of endless crowded debates, especially on the Republican side.

The various candidates spent vast sums, more than a hundred million of it by Jeb Bush, who now seems long gone from the race. It’s only 30 days since the first caucus votes were cast in Iowa, and both nominations now look nearly decided.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump now seem the all-but-certain nominees, after last night’s Super Tuesday contest.

All, but not quite certain.

Ted Cruz, who it was thought might win only his native Texas, picked up Oklahoma and Alaska.

Marco Rubio, who in any other year would probably be gone already, eked out a win in the Minnesota caucuses, allowing him to claim that he is still a viable moderate alternative.

On the Democratic side, nobody expected Bernie Sanders to win any of the southern states, but Clinton’s huge margins made it clear that Sanders has failed to make inroads among African-American voters, despite being endorsed by black intellectuals like Cornel West.

...all of this makes Michigan more important.

Sanders did, however, easily win not only Vermont but Colorado, Oklahoma and Minnesota, and by larger margins than even his own campaign expected. But he suffered a narrow but major loss in Massachusetts, which he badly needed to win.

And all of this makes Michigan more important.

Marco Rubio and John Kasich have to do well here, to even rationalize staying in the race.

Kasich, the governor of Ohio, hasn’t won anything. If he can’t do well next week in another Midwestern industrial state next to his, he might as well go back to Columbus.

Marco Rubio is in the same boat. He hasn’t won anywhere outside of one insignificant caucus.

On the Democratic side, a Clinton victory might well seal her nomination.

Sanders, who has done better than anyone imagined, needs a big industrial state win. Michigan is a place where thousands of once well-paid workers ought to be open to his economic message.

So for the next six days, expect to see lots of these candidates; the only other contest next Tuesday is in Mississippi.

There’s a troubling ethical issue for the media here too.

An anguished TV reporter in Traverse City, a former student of mine, contacted me the other day. She has to go cover a Trump rally. She noted that a lot of the things he says are demonstrably false, and that he openly attacks minorities and even the disabled.

"The bosses will want a peppy, excited vibe from the live reporter."

“The bosses will want a peppy, excited vibe from the live reporter.” She is not supposed to evaluate the man who the New York Times today calls “a shady, bombastic liar.”

But she fears that “just contributing to the hype without saying anything analytical makes me complicit in his rise.”

That was the problem reporters faced once upon a time with Joe McCarthy. It took an Edward R. Murrow to bring him down, and only then at the cost of sacrificing his show and much of his career.

I suspect this is a dilemma many journalists will have to face as this year unfolds.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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