CLEVELAND ― There were no plagiarized lines Wednesday night at the Republican convention. No insinuations of satanism, or half-empty crowds during late-night speeches. Instead, there was thunderous booing of a prime-time speaker and lingering questions about whether the Trump campaign will ever be able to bring the GOP’s warring factions together.
The night was supposed to belong to vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, who delivered a paint-by-numbers conservative address befitting the role he’s being asked to play on the ticket. But it will be remembered for the booing endured ― or perhaps engineered ― by GOP nominee Donald Trump’s former top challenger, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who not only refused to endorse the Republican nominee during his speech, but also encouraged attendees to vote their conscience.
Cruz’s play will be the subject of endless debate in the weeks ahead. It certainly will feed speculation that he and others see Trump as a general election loser, whose defeat will deliver new opportunities to reshape and lead the Republican Party. What’s undoubtedly clear is that this wasn’t an act of defiance by some rogue agent. Yes, Trump has the vast majority of support from Republican voters, many of them converts.
“I love him,” said Dena DeCamp, a Florida delegate and president of the Florida Federation of Republican Women. “He was not my first choice. Rubio was my first choice. ... But during the campaign, even before Rubio was out, my husband and I would be watching and listening to Donald Trump, and saying he was making so much sense.”
But in the halls of the convention, where the party elite chat in hushed tones, he’s no loved figure.
One delegate who supported the presidential candidacy of Ohio Gov. John Kasich ― whose absence from the convention was as astonishing as Cruz’s act of defiance ― was asked if Wednesday night was bittersweet. “No,” he replied. “Just bitter.”
A Cruz delegate said he felt “numb” watching the coronation of Trump. “I’m just stumbling through the motions.” Asked if booze was helping, he playfully replied: “maybe.”
An alternate delegate from Texas said he was “here for the balloons, not for the nominee.”
But even as opposition to Trump lingers in the corners of the GOP, the candidate himself has a few factors working in his favor. And they were plainly visible on Wednesday night. He is an expert showman, tactically upstaging Cruz by entering the hall and drawing the eyeballs of the room as Cruz’s speech ended. And, unlike during the early stages of the primary, Trump has a widening net of support.
“Look, people in this hall, a lot of them worked really hard for Ted,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) a prominent Trump endorser, told The Huffington Post. “They believe in Ted. They were passionate. And it’s harder for them. But out there, among the voters, I saw a poll, 87 percent had rallied behind Trump and I think that’s going to continue to grow.”
“There are a few holdouts,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) acknowledged. “But for every one of those, there are 10 people here who have never been to a convention before.”
With a difficult electoral map and putrid polling numbers, Trump must hope that he is drawing more people into the political process, as Inhofe suggested. But if the convention was viewed as a means for inspiring those usually sedentary voters, then Trump’s aides will have their disappointments.
There has been no thematic consistency to the proceedings. Each night has had distractions. Revelations that Trump’s wife Melania had cribbed some of her speech from first lady Michelle Obama’s 2008 address drowned out all other stories from the opening session. Tuesday brought the now infamous chants that Hillary Clinton should be jailed for her use of a private email server. And Wednesday came Cruz, who was booed again outside Quicken Loans Arena after his speech. Many screamed for the senator to “go to hell.”
Even the lower-profile speakers have lacked star power or, for that matter, crisp and unapologetic boosting of the man now at the top of the ticket.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, one of Wednesday’s first speakers, prefaced his support of Trump by admitting “he can be a little impolite and a little gruff and for some people he may be too direct.”
Trump may very well leave Cleveland with political momentum, though much will depend on his own speech Thursday ― one of the most-anticipated convention addresses in modern memory.
But he also will emerge with a faction of the party still smarting about the primary. Outside the arena, members of the Texas delegation gathered around high-top tables filled with drinks, furious with how Cruz had been treated and convinced that Trump’s campaign had whipped up the booing.
“Trump walking into the arena proved that he is a classless individual, okay?” said Jeremiah Hunter, a delegate from Longview, Texas. “Because he stole the thunder from Ted Cruz right when he was ending his speech. That’s classless. It was deliberate and anyone who thinks it’s not deliberate is delusional. And that’s what I have to say about that.”
Trump’s backers, too, have grown increasingly frustrated with those refusing to fall in line. Carl Paladino, the Buffalo, New York, real estate developer who is one of Trump’s top supporters, floated the idea that Cruz may have cost himself a chance at being appointed by a President Trump to the U.S. Supreme Court for his act of defiance, before downplaying Trump’s vindictiveness.
“I don’t think he will hold that against him,” Paladino told The Huffington Post. “He will still consider him to be a Supreme Court justice. Donald rolls with the punches.”
That seems diplomatic, compared with the response of a donor who reportedly had to be restrained from attacking Cruz in a suite after his speech.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee took to Facebook to rail against Cruz’s speech. And radio talk show host Laura Ingraham, in one of the night’s better-received speeches, painted holdouts in the audience as whiny, thoughtless, wimps.
“Even all you boys with wounded feelings and bruised egos ... You must honor your pledge to support Donald Trump now,” she said. “Tonight. Tonight.”
Jonathan Cohn, Amanda Terkel and Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims ― 1.6 billion members of an entire religion ― from entering the U.S.