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Whitmer, Dixon feud over familiar issues in final gubernatorial debate

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Robin Buckson/The Detroit News Pool
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The Detroit News
Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, left, and Republican challenger Tudor Dixon shake hands before their debate on WXYZ Channel 7 at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., on Oct. 24, 2022.

Differences between Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Republican challenger Tudor Dixon on abortion, guns and schools were on display in their second and final debate before the November election — although the fierce rivals also found something nice to say about each other.

It was about 45 minutes in and getting close to the end of Tuesday’s debate at Oakland University when the candidates — the first two women to face each other in a Michigan gubernatorial election — were asked to say something positive about the other.

Tudor Dixon went first. “My opponent always talks about her daughters, and as a mom of girls I think it’s so important to encourage your daughters and love your daughters. She has also made sure she’s fought for women and I love that about her,” she said.

Whitmer said that’s something they can agree on.

“Moms’ voices are important. We obviously have very different perspectives. All moms are not the same,” Whitmer said. “But I appreciate how difficult it is and applaud any woman who’s willing to put herself out there and at the same time balance all the pressures that we working moms have.”

But candidate debates are about showcasing differences — and there were plenty on display between Whitmer and Dixon, as polls show the race between them tightening.

One of the greatest chasms between the two is over abortion rights. It’s no secret that Whitmer is an ardent advocate for abortion rights and has gone to court to block a 1931 abortion ban from taking effect.

“Michigan was poised to revert back to a 1931 law that makes abortion a felony with no exceptions for rape or incest, throwing doctors and nurses in jail,” she said.

Whitmer also supports Proposal 3, the ballot question to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.

Dixon opposes the ballot question and called Whitmer’s position “radical.”

“So when she calls me ‘extreme,’ the truth is there’s no more extreme position than Governor Whitmer’s on abortion,” Dixon said.

But Dixon said as governor, she’d abide by voters’ decision if Proposal 3 is adopted.

When the topic moved to guns, the differences between the candidates — and the potential consequences for Michiganders — remained clear.

Oakland University, where the debate took place, is less than 20 miles from Oxford High School. The day before the debate, a teenager pleaded guilty to murdering four Oxford students and injuring seven others on a rampage with a gun he got from his parents.

Whitmer called for safe storage laws and background checks. Dixon said gun restrictions aren’t the answer.

“I want to make sure our kids are safe. I don’t want our kids in a ‘sitting duck zone’ where the only person that has a weapon is the shooter who is going in to take their lives,” Dixon said.

The subject came up again after Dixon complained about schools allowing children to get hold of what she described as inappropriate materials on sex and gender in libraries. Whitmer responded with questions: “Do you really think books are more dangerous than guns? Do you really think that books pose a greater danger to our kids than gun violence does?” she said.

On COVID pandemic policies, Whitmer said she made tough choices that saved lives. Dixon said Whitmer’s use of the state’s emergency powers lasted too long at a steep price of lives and livelihoods.

The candidates’ messages were targeted at swing voters in metro Detroit — home to almost half the state’s population — who could prove decisive, according to political science professor David Dulio. He’s the director of Oakland University’s Center for Civic Engagement, and he said the most important thing for candidates was to avoid a gaffe that becomes a meme or a campaign ad.

“I’ll make a sports analogy: The first day of the Masters golf tournament, folks always say, you can’t win the Masters on the first day, but you can lose it. You can’t win the race tonight, but you can lose it,” Dulio said.

With two weeks left, polls show a close race, and the Whitmer and Dixon campaigns are trying to reach that shrinking but decisive group of voters who still haven’t made up their minds.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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