MACKINAC ISLAND, Michigan — Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker passed on a chance to speak to thousands of Michigan Republicans and traveled instead to an event with religious conservatives in first-voting Iowa, on which the Wisconsin governor's White House hopes rely.
While Walker shuffled his plans, Republican candidates were spinning what they could from Wednesday's debate into early voting states and some general election battlegrounds, as the campaign entered the critical fall stretch.
Walker was to kick off the second day of the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference, a biennial gathering of GOP activists and elected officials on Michigan's picturesque Mackinac Island. Walker aides said a charter flight he had arranged to take from Chicago was grounded due to inclement weather.
Walker had originally agreed to kick off the three-day event Friday evening with fellow GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush. But he cancelled last week, saying he couldn't get from the Republican forum in South Carolina late Friday.
"We have moved heaven and earth to get him here," Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel told the more than 1,000 who attended Saturday's breakfast expecting to hear Walker.
The wrinkle comes as Walker has scaled back his initially ambitious campaign for president to focus on neighboring Iowa, scrambling to reassure jittery donors and supporters after a quiet performance in the second Republican debate on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz were addressing the group in Michigan, a key primary state and a potential swing state in the general election.
Speaking to a group of GOP activists from a wealthy Detroit suburb, Kasich noted he'd already been to Michigan five times as a candidate. "I consider Michigan absolutely vital on the road to the White House," Kasich said.
Kasich also called on Republicans to reach beyond white voters. "When we do better, people who live in the shadows cannot be ignored. If you're in a minority community we want you to be lifted, we want you to be part of everything."
The message was similar to Bush's. The former Florida governor opened the conference Friday night calling for civil discourse and an optimistic tone toward typically non-Republican voters. It's a theme the onetime front-runner has begun hitting aggressively since businessman Donald Trump has shot to the top of national polls in recent months. Trump has successfully used a dire description of the state of the country and negative characterizations of Mexican immigrants to win support.
"If we are serious about winning, we need to be on their side and assume that they want to achieve earned success, because they do," Bush said, referring to racial and ethnic minorities who typically vote Democratic and middle class voters feeling left behind in a strong economy.
Bush had spoken earlier at the same South Carolina conference Walker attended. And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz spoke at the Michigan conference Saturday as Walker was supposed to, and was headed to the gathering of social conservatives in Iowa where Walker also was expected to speak.
Cruz claimed success at the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, Wednesday, by setting himself apart from the likes of Bush and Kasich, viewed by some Republicans as moderates.
"If you think we need to continue heading in the same basic direction — just kind of fiddle around the edges — then I ain't your guy," he told the lunch audience of about 2,000 Saturday.
Cruz tried to demonstrate all-important forward momentum, saying he had raised $1 million in the 48 hours immediately following the debate.
Kasich, former tech company executive Carly Fiorina and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul were also expected to address the Michigan conference on Saturday.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, businessman Donald Trump, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former New York Gov. George Pataki were also scheduled to speak at the Iowa forum.
Associated Press writer David Eggert contributed to this report.