The exchanges grew tense and cranky at times as the five Republicans and two Democrats running for governor appeared on the same stage for the first time, and probably only time last night. They debated before a crowd at a business conference on Mackinac Island.
The candidates questioned each others' competence and honesty in the freewheeling appearance before a crowd at the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference. Most of the people paid 200 dollars apiece to attend the chamber's political action committee fundraiser.
Attorney General Mike Cox took aim early at one of his rivals for the Republican nomination, Ann Arbor venture capitalist Rick Snyder. Cox accused Snyder of shipping jobs overseas as the CEO of Gateway computers.
Snyder was ready with a sharp response that drew gasps from the crowd: "He's making up stuff again and again. He's got enough scandals that he's making them up for other people.
Snyder's ads have referred obliquely to Cox's rumored connection to a never-proven party at Manoogian Mansion while Kwame Kilpatrick was mayor of Detroit. The attorney general also made public three years ago the fact that he had an extra-marital affair.
Cox challenged Snyder to openly ask him about the scandals: "Instead of dealing with innuendo, this is a debate. Let's talk about the issues if you think that's an issue."
Snyder declined: "Mr. Cox, I'm not going to stand here and be lectured by you on ethics, morality and family values."
Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard drew cheers when he tried to change the subject: "Rome's burning and we're standing around talking about things that aren't related to putting out the fire."
There were plenty of other sharp exchanges. For example, state Senator Tom George said all his Republican adversaries were hypocrites on taxes.
"I've read their plans and they're all flawed because they all promise massive tax cuts and spending increases," which, George says, the state cannot afford as it battles revenue shortfalls.
All the Republicans agreed tax increases would be a mistake and most agreed that Michigan's reputation as a strong union state can be a deterrent to attracting jobs. But Congressman Pete Hoekstra, who has a history of cordial relations with labor leaders, says unions aren't the problem. But they will have to be part of solving Michigan's budget crisis.
"What the next governor's going to have to do is they're going to have to provide the strong leadership to work and get the unions to understand to bring Michigan back for their members and their kids," he says. "We're going to have to make those tough decisions."
Hoekstra and the other Republicans say that includes bringing public employee benefits in line with what's offered in the private sector.
Democratic House Speaker Andy Dillon says he's already got a track record of offering ideas like putting all public employees into one pool for purchasing health benefits.
"We've got three kind of macro issues. One, we're perceived as a heavy tax, a complicated tax state. Two, our regulatory environment is deemed unfriendly, and three, whether you want to call it reality or perception, have got a labor problem," he says.
His rival for the Democratic nomination is Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, who has the backing of the United Auto Workers and the AFL/CIO. Bernero courted labor's support in front of the business crowd.
"Why is it that the sacrifice always has to come from the middle and the lower. Why is it always Robin Hood in reverse. Where is the sacrifice on Wall Street? I see they're getting their bonuses and their bailouts."
That drew some scattered applause, but also some cat-calling from a handful of people in the crowd.
One of the people in attendance at the debate was a former resident of the governor's posh official second home on Mackinac Island home. Retired Governor William Milliken says he didn't reach any conclusions on who he might support.
"All I know is I'm glad I'm not there," he laughed.