Pressed on whether Mr. Trump had been wrong to share a white supremacist chant on his Twitter feed, Mr. James declined to answer, putting his thumb and forefinger together in the shape of a zero to demonstrate how little attention he had paid to the tweets.
“We are competing against nations that think in terms of dynasties and centuries,” he said, criticizing what he called the small-mindedness of our politics. “Who’s out there laying the vision for who we want to be?”
Republicans in Michigan have proved before that they can win statewide office without widespread support from Black voters, and this appears to be the path to victory that Mr. James’s advisers envision. They did not offer a prediction when asked if he would do better than single digits among Black voters, the typical high-water mark for most Republicans in recent elections.
Mr. Trump won Michigan in 2016 by just 10,000 votes — his thinnest margin in any state. But that edge is gone today. Public polling, along with private Republican surveys of the state, show Mr. Trump has slipped far behind former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., in some cases by double digits. And while the latest internal Republican surveys show Mr. James doing slightly better than the president, Republicans familiar with the numbers said he was still behind. A June New York Times/Siena College poll had him down by 10 points.
“I think there are people who are troubled by the current numbers,” said Stu Sandler, a strategist working for Mr. James in Michigan, referring to the president’s standing. At the same time, Mr. Sandler added, “A lot of the same people who cautioned Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, saying, ‘You’ve got a problem in Michigan,’ are saying today these numbers are not going to stay like this.”
Critics said that Mr. James had missed an opportunity with Black voters who might consider voting for a Republican but were turned off because he wouldn’t stand up to Mr. Trump.
“Colin Powell can have his picture next to Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy in a Black household,” said Mario Morrow Sr., a political consultant in Michigan who has worked for Republican and Democratic governors. “Right now,” he added, “John James won’t get his picture there because he is not standing up.”