LANSING, Michigan (AP) — Front-runner Donald Trump's staying power with white, working-class voters is tested Tuesday in Michigan, the first industrial state primary in the four-man race for the Republican nominating contest.
The brash New York billionaire has appealed to those voters by opposing international trade deals and supporting a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out immigrants who are seen as competitors for jobs in the industrial economy. With an eye on the November general election, Trump contends he can put Midwestern, Democratic-leaning industrial states such as Michigan and Wisconsin in play for Republicans.
The Republican party is in near-civil war after Trump came from nowhere last summer but now holds first place over ultra-conservative Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, one-time tea-party favorite and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and the more moderate Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Trump leads with 384 delegates, followed by Cruz with 300, Rubio with 151 and Kasich with 37. Winning the Republican nomination requires 1,237 delegates.
Trump on Tuesday defended a gesture he makes at his rallies in which he raises his right hand in a salute that has been compared by some to the Nazi salute.
Speaking to NBC, Trump called the accusations "ridiculous" and said his supporters call on him to make a gesture as if he's swearing in for the presidency.
"I didn't know it was a problem," Trump said. "Sometimes we'll do it for fun."
The Better Business Bureau, meanwhile, disputed Trump's claims that his Trump University was given an A+ rating by the business ethics monitor. That became a source of dispute during last week's Republican debate.
Trump claimed the group had given his business an A+. But the moderator responded that it was a D-. Trump then said he received a fax mid-debate from the BBB that proved the score was later elevated. Claire Rosenzweig, head of the BBB's Metro New York division, said Tuesday that the group did not send the fax.
Mississippi, Idaho and Hawaii are also holding Republican contests Tuesday. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders face off in Michigan and Mississippi.
Slotted between last week's high-profile Super Tuesday contests and high-stakes primaries next week in Florida and Ohio, Tuesday's votes are unlikely to dramatically reshape either party's primaries. But 150 Republican and 179 Democratic delegates to the parties' national nominating conventions are still at stake.
Unless Kasich and Rubio can win in their home states next week, the Republican primary campaign likely becomes a two-person race between Trump and Cruz, who has publicly criticized party leaders. After winning six states, Cruz is arguing he's the only candidate standing between Trump and the Republican nomination.
More mainstream Republicans have cast both Trump and Cruz as unelectable in a November contest. But they're quickly running out of options to stop their momentum and are increasingly considering long-shot ideas such as a contested convention or a yet-to-be-determined third-party candidate.
Clinton, meanwhile, appears to be on a steady path to the Democratic nomination. The former secretary of state and first lady has steadily grown her lead over Sanders, who has struggled to broaden his appeal beyond a loyal following of younger voters and liberals.
Clinton's surge led former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to announce Monday that he will not run for president as an independent candidate.
Tuesday's results will offer clues about whether Sanders is making any progress in the overwhelming support that Clinton has enjoyed from black voters.
Trying to make a stand in Michigan, Sanders has accused Clinton of being disingenuous when she said he opposed the auto bailout that rescued carmakers General Motors and Chrysler during the Great Recession. The 2008-2009 bailout by presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama remains popular in Michigan, the home of the U.S. auto industry, and has been credited with preserving the Midwest's manufacturing base.
Heading into Tuesday's contests, Clinton had accumulated 1,130 delegates and Sanders 499, including superdelegates, or party insiders who can support whomever they like. Democrats need 2,383 delegates to win the nomination.