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Michigan primary: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders hope to win over heart of U.S. auto industry

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DETROIT — Joe Biden made a last-minute pitch on Tuesday to the blue-collar workers he hopes will help deliver a critical win in Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary, as rival Bernie Sanders aims for an upset that would revive his flagging White House hopes.

Voters in Michigan and five other states were making their choice in a two-man battle for the right to face Republican Donald Trump in November — between Biden, the former vice president who has run as a moderate, and Sanders, a democratic socialist and U.S. senator from Vermont who has become the standard-bearer for the party’s left flank.

Biden’s impressive showing in last week’s “Super Tuesday” states, along with a surge of endorsements and campaign donations, has elevated him to front-runner status, narrowing Sanders’ path to the nomination.

The most important vote on Tuesday was in Michigan, the cradle of America’s auto industry where Sanders sprang a stunning 2016 upset over Hillary Clinton that ensured a long nominating fight — something Biden hopes to avoid this time. Washington, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and Idaho also hold contests.

Michigan is also likely to be a crucial battleground in the general election, after Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate four years ago to carry the state in nearly three decades.

Late in the day, both candidates called off planned rallies in Cleveland, Ohio, on Tuesday due to concerns over the coronavirus outbreak, which has rattled markets and prompted Democrats to criticize the Trump administration’s response.

The campaigns said they were following guidance from Ohio public health officials. Until now, Democratic candidates as well as Trump have largely continued to hold large-scale events despite the epidemic.

Biden, who has touted the Obama administration’s decision to bail out the auto industry, made a morning campaign stop at Detroit’s first new auto assembly plant in decades, owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

“Unions built the country,” Biden said, yelling through a bullhorn. “You’re the best damn workers in the world.”

But his visit was marred by a clash with one worker who suggested he planned to confiscate Americans’ guns. Biden, whose propensity to veer off script occasionally causes self-inflicted wounds, snapped at the worker with an obscenity.

Michigan is emblematic of the country’s struggle to retain manufacturing jobs.

Sanders has attacked Biden for supporting international trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is unpopular among many of Michigan’s workers. As Biden left the plant, video showed some workers chanting “Trump!”

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