Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio warned that his rival and GOP frontrunner Donald Trump is "destroying the Republican party," during a rally in Mich. on March 2. (Reuters)

The morning shift workers at the Mopar Center Line plant lined up, waited for the clock and walked briskly to their American-made cars. It had been seven years since the auto industry bailout that saved Fiat Chrysler and, by extension, thousands of jobs here. On the stump, Hillary Clinton frequently cites the bailout as a success story of President Obama’s economic policies, aiming her remarks at voters just like these.

They couldn’t have cared less.

“We suffered for that auto bailout,” said Brian Keller, 47, who led the fight against a proposed United Auto Workers contract last year. “They started making record profits while our benefits were being cut.”

“They all suck,” said Tom Delasi, 48. “Trump at least tells you how it is.” Clinton, he added, is so power-hungry that she wants to work in the office her husband defiled with a sex scandal.

The 2016 presidential contest heads this week to Michigan, a vote-rich epicenter of the anger and economic anxiety that has come to define this election cycle — and a potentially crucial battleground in both parties’ nominating contests on Tuesday and, perhaps, the general election beyond.

Tracking the race to the Republican nomination

The Republican field heads to Detroit on Thursday for its 11th debate at a time when front-
runner Donald Trump appears the heavy favorite to win Tuesday’s primary. The resonance of Trump’s message in an industrial state with a large working class battered by economic stagnation has been clear in every Michigan poll this year; a polling average compiled by RealClearPolitics puts him up by 19.4 points over both Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

On Sunday, the Democrats will debate in embattled Flint, a ­majority-black city confronting a lead-poisoned water crisis that both Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont have said would never have happened in a richer, whiter city.

In previous, Trump-less election cycles, Michigan’s primary has played the role that a saucer plays for a cup of tea. In the 2012 Republican race, native son Mitt Romney recovered from a surprise three-state loss to Rick Santorum with a narrow, suburb-powered Michigan win. In 2000, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) lost the South Carolina primary, but Michigan’s independent voters flocked to the Republican race and gave him a consolation prize.

This year is different; the outsider candidates of each party appear to have unusual appeal.

“Trump’s going to win Michigan,” said John Weaver, a strategist for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, as his candidate talked to 150 voters at a Ukrainian cultural center here. “He’s around 35 percent, and nobody’s going to catch him. And you’ve got some economic angst here, which he preys on.”

Ray Crawford, 44, said: “Bernie seems like he’s more for the workers. All I’ve seen about Hillary is the corporate backing she gets. That doesn’t bode well. The guys making the real money seem to want her in there so they can make some more.”

The Fix's Chris Cillizza explains when the GOP frontrunners stand after Super Tuesday. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

The Democrats’ map, and electorate, is more familiar than the Republicans’. Yet Michigan Republican officials have not adopted the white-knuckle panic of their Beltway counterparts about Trump’s rise. Wayne Bradley, who has run the GOP’s Detroit outreach office since its December 2013 opening, said that Trump’s buzz had inspired some black voters to come to a recent organizing meeting. Ronna Romney McDaniel, the state party chair and niece of the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, said Trump’s campaign was bringing “blue-collar Democrats” into the fold.

But the Detroit suburbs are home to one of the largest Muslim and Middle Eastern immigrant populations in the nation and, in fact, one city, Hamtramck, this year swore in the country’s first Muslim-majority city council. The Republican race has been rife with anti-Islam sentiment, most notably Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country and possibly even deporting non-citizen Muslims who are here legally.

While Trump’s ideas were greeted with widespread outrage from Democrats and even skepticism from his GOP rivals, the matter has largely retreated to the background as other Trump controversies have waxed and waned. Now that the campaign is moving on to Detroit, though, many think it’s time for both sides to talk about it again.

“What’s really troubling is the xenophobia — statements about us, statements about only accepting Syrian Christian refugees,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American -Islamic Relations. “It’s a theme within the GOP. It’s not just Trump. It’s something that’s extremely troubling.”

Walid noted that Trump was pressured to disavow endorsements from the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist groups because “it’s not acceptable to be overtly anti-black, but to be overtly anti-Muslim is acceptable.”

At Wednesday events in Macomb County, the place where “Reagan Democrats” first defied their unions and cast Republican ballots, both Rubio and Kasich drew relatively thin crowds. The Florida senator, roughed up by weak Super Tuesday results, scrapped some of the jokes he had been telling about Trump in his stump speech. Instead, he portrayed the front-runner as a “con artist” who had subjected some working-class people to a real estate “scam.” Trump, said Rubio, was unfit to “lead the conservative movement.”

“He’s never even voted in a Republican primary,” Rubio said.

Some in the crowd were aware of the Trump heresies yet ready to look past them.

“I think he would stand up to Hillary,” said Anna Nestro, 75. “He’s outrageous sometimes. But he’s tough. And you have to vote for somebody.”

Ten thousand people attended a rally for Sanders in East Lansing on Wednesday night, his third trip to the state in the past three weeks. “We disagree very significantly over trade policies,” Sanders said of Clinton during the rally. He said Detroit had been the nation’s wealthiest city in 1960 and is now its poorest big city, in no small part to “disastrous trade policies.”

Sanders was scheduled to hold a news conference Thursday on trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

His campaign has aggressively pushed out statistics on Michigan’s economic struggles, saying that 33 percent of manufacturing jobs have been lost over the past 15 years and that half of Detroit’s auto workforce lost their jobs between 1998 and 2011.

Sanders also debuted a 30-
second ad in Michigan. “While others waffle, Bernie is fighting hundreds of thousands in new job losses,” the ad says, in a reference to Clinton’s evolving position last year on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.

At a rally in New York with labor unions supporting her, a hoarse Clinton told the crowd she would be in Detroit this week to talk about her jobs program.

“Don’t let anybody tell you we can’t make things in America anymore,” she said. “We can, we are, and we will.”

The issue of lead-poisoned public drinking water in Flint is on the minds — and daily front pages — throughout the state, but only on the Democratic side has it really been part of the political conversation. Both Sanders and Clinton have visited Flint, and Clinton, who has made outreach to African American voters a central part of her strategy, has name-checked the majority-black, impoverished city on a regular basis.

The Republican candidates have been largely silent on the issue. None have visited Flint or talked about the mismanagement that led to the disaster there. In one debate, Kasich was asked about it, but he pivoted to how well he had handled water crises in his state. Many in Flint are eager to see whether Fox News will address their situation when the GOP candidates appear in Detroit.

Nayyirah Shariff, a local activist with a grass-roots group called Flint Rising, expressed skepticism of the sincerity of candidates on at a star-studded #JusticeforFlint fundraising concert Sunday. “We’re kind of tired of politicians using our story for a political backdrop,” Shariff told the audience.

In addition to mentioning the auto bailout, Clinton regularly talks about adding new manufacturing jobs to replace those lost overseas — and about rebuilding the middle class as the nation’s economic engine. Polls have shown Sanders trailing in the state by double digits, but campaign manager Jeff Weaver and strategist Tad Devine said Sanders has come back from similar margins in other states when voters have gotten to know him.

In a strategy memo released Wednesday, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook seemed to suggest that a Michigan victory for Sanders is possible — but Mook also used the state as an example of the different strategies the two campaigns are pursuing.

“Sen. Sanders’s campaign continues to pursue a strategy focused on states rather than delegates. For example, Sen. Sanders is competing very aggressively in Michigan, where he has already spent $3 million on TV,” Mook wrote. “We are also competing to win in Michigan and feel good about where that race stands, but even if Sen. Sanders were able to eke out a victory there, we would still net more delegates in Mississippi, which holds its election on the same night.”

Friess reported from Ann Arbor, Mich. Anne Gearan in Washington and John Wagner in East Lansing contributed to this report.