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With Michigan’s Aug. 7 primary weeks away, the two candidates duking it out in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate aren’t holding much back. The results of that primary will say a lot about which direction the GOP really wants to head.

“This isn’t just an opportunity to flip a seat, it’s a chance to flip the script,” candidate John James told me last month at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference. “We have an opportunity to address the problems of the day with courage, imagination and humility.”

Sounds promising. But it’s still far from certain whether James will get the chance to go head-to-head with longtime Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow.

A year ago, James was a political unknown, and he’s made huge strides in recent months to get the word out about his campaign and who he is -- through trekking around all corners of the state and speaking at several dozen Lincoln Day dinners, along with plenty of social media appearances.

Here’s why James stands out: He’s 36. He’s an African-American from Detroit. He’s a former Army captain who flew Apaches in Iraq. And he returned to Detroit to take over the family transportation and warehousing business.

Top it all off with James getting the endorsement of conservative rocker Kid Rock this week — who had teased the possibility of a run himself last summer.

James embodies many of the qualities the GOP has said it wants as it seeks to move away from its image as stodgy party of old white men.

Yet James faces a tough opponent in Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler, who infused his campaign with $5 million of his own money early on and has translated that investment into TV ads that have boosted his profile with likely voters.

In the end, it all comes down to who can raise the most money, says Michigan pollster Steve Mitchell. Pensler started with a “huge financial advantage,” Mitchell says, but James has time to catch up. He just has to do it quickly.

“If James can raise the money, he has a chance to be a very credible candidate,” observes Mitchell. “The Republicans would love to have John James — a fighter pilot, an African-American, charismatic, he’s clearly a darling of the establishment.”

He also says James would have access to large donations from national GOP political action committees that are looking to support candidates like him, especially if he could win the primary.

And James says the support is starting to pour in — from some big Michigan GOP donors (DeVos and Secchia are on the list) as well as from 13,000 gifts from his “grassroots army.” He came out with his first TV ad last month, highlighting his combat experience.

“We’ve been able to increase our top line quarter over quarter in the high double digits each quarter and we don’t see any signs of that stopping,” James says. “We raised over $2.5 million in the past six months, and last quarter was $1.2 million. We are increasing every single day and that’s because of the energy that we have.”

GOP consultant Dennis Lennox says that on paper this race should be competitive, “but it seems to have become an afterthought.” He also points to Michigan’s fairly late primary along with Stabenow’s lack of a primary opponent as major disadvantages for Republicans.

“Stabenow can focus on November while Republicans continue to fight among themselves,” Lennox says. “This is a big problem, if only because John James and Sandy Pensler are spending all of their money on a primary election.”

That doesn’t mean this race is a done deal.

James finally got Pensler to agree to a debate July 6, and he is continuing to spread his message around Michigan, including in Detroit, where Republicans don’t usually fare well.

“I believe we have a chance to reach out,” James says. “This is an opportunity the Republican Party is not going to miss.”

ijacques@detroitnews.com 

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