WARREN (Michigan) • Mr Neil Mortensen remembers how neighbours lost factory jobs in this suburb north of Detroit, and then, inexorably and sadly, their homes.
"I'd see all these businesses that used to produce normal products, even brooms, that everybody uses and purchases today, but are not produced here - they are produced overseas," he said.
A construction manager, Mr Mortensen escaped being laid off as his employer, which once built plants for heavy industry, is now in the demolition business. "Those factories are gone, and I get to knock 'em down, unfortunately," he said.
Which is how he and his wife ended up at a rally for anti-free-trade billionaire Donald Trump, who vows to slap 35 per cent tariffs on Ford cars built in Mexico - even though the president does not have that authority, and experts say if Congress agreed, would likely set off a trade war.
Mr Trump's appeal to blue-collar voters, mostly white, is driving his popularity in Michigan, where he has a polling lead ahead of the Republican primary today. And these same voters - who have historically supported the Democrats - are at the core of his strategy for winning the general election and turning Democratic-leaning Rust Belt states back into the red column.
Mr Trump's rally last Friday was in Macomb County, where strategists identified the phenomenon of white, working-class voters who feel Democrats no longer protect their economic interests as they focus on policies aimed at minorities.
A "normal Republican", Mr Trump said at Macomb Community College, "cannot think of bringing in Michigan, and if you don't bring in Michigan, it's tough. You have a very narrow road". "But I'm going to bring in places like Michigan," he said, pledging to win back a once- solid Republican state that has supported Democrats in the last six presidential elections.
His signature issues of opposition to free trade and crackdown on illegal immigrants, once dismissed by Republicans as outside the mainstream, have brought him a populist following, including independents and some Democrats.
"I like what he wants to do with the immigration," said former salesman Marvin Bryant, who switched his registration from Democrat to Republican last year, and plans to vote for Mr Trump. Warren Fire Department captain Kurt Reidt said his vote for Mr Trump today would be his first for a Republican. "This is probably the worst state in the country with the economy," he said.
Representative Sander Levin, a Democrat who represents Macomb County in Washington, has opposed major trade deals for decades and said Mr Trump was playing on people's fears with no practical solutions. "He pushes the buttons, but there's nothing behind it. The 35 per cent tariff thing isn't workable."
But a sampling of voters who heard Mr Trump last Friday turned up little scepticism about his promises. They felt strongly that he was the lone truth teller in the race.
Mr Gary Ragland, a retired clock repairman, said he was not sure Mr Trump's tariffs plan would bring back factories, but thought the threat alone could shake things up.
"He has shown America - anybody that's awake - what the hell is going on," he said.
NEW YORK TIMES