A year ago, when Donald Trump descended the Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy for president of the U.S., he was greeted by chortles and confusion from much of the national political press corps and the Republican establishment the New York real-estate developer was about to raze.
No one is laughing anymore. But he is also in a different, more challenging race now.
Trump led for most of the GOP primaries by comfortable margins, but he's trailed presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in most polls for months. His signature positions on banning Muslim immigrants and building a wall along the southern U.S. border with Mexico are not major selling points to independents. And the voters left to be persuaded are highly skeptical of Trump, and not inclined to think he's presidential.
A former reality-TV show host seeking the nation's highest elected office as his first, Trump was officially nominated Tuesday as the Republican Party's presidential candidate, the same title once held by historic figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.
The convention that is unfolding around his White House bid has so far failed to give a clear answer as to what Trump's nomination means for the party that has lost the popular vote in five of the past six national elections, and fallen short of signaling what direction the campaign will take into the final months of the election.
Trump's campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who said the billionaire "changed the face of the Republican Party," promised an all-Trump convention earlier in the week that would catapult his candidate into the lead. "This election is about Donald Trump," he said.
The second night of the four-day convention was not about Trump. Most speakers focused on attacking Clinton -- who will accept her party's presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention next week -- as the crowd chanted "Lock her up!"
Even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, one of Trump's earliest endorsers and staunchest defenders, spent the majority of his time on stage asking the crowd whether Clinton was guilty of various charges. The crowd roared, but whether the campaign's path to victory depended more on boosting Trump than bringing down Clinton remains to be seen.
On a night that was supposed to be devoted to the economy -- an issue that the campaign has argued is a linchpin for attracting more minority voters -- there was little talk about how the party or Trump would "make America work again."
House Speaker Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking Republican official in the U.S. and a reluctant Trump supporter, was the most eloquent speaker on the topic Tuesday, but he seemed to be shoe-horning his own political philosophy of traditional conservatism into an evening focused on other priorities. It may be Ryan's party someday, but not this week.
Ryan, the party's vice-presidential nominee four years ago, earned light applause from the crowd in Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena. Senator Mitch McConnell, who orchestrated the party's first take-over of the chamber in almost a decade, was briefly booed when he walked on stage.
Kimberlin Brown, a soap-opera star and avocado farmer, served as an unorthodox headlining speaker. But the arena was less than half full by the time she finished her speech just before 11 p.m. ET, with entire delegations from at least a dozen states headed for the doors before she finished.
At the convention's half-way point, Democrats could barely contain their glee or hide their anticipation of contrasting the Republican events with their own convention next week.
"Their theme should have been, 'Make the Republican Party Work Again,' because it clearly isn't," Luis Miranda, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, said in an interview. "Our convention is going to be the exact opposite. It’s going to be well organized and we’re going to have a candidate that not only knows what she’s doing, but really understands the challenges."
There is time for Trump, 70, to salvage his party's convention. His running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, speaks Wednesday evening. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a former rival, is also set to give a speech Wednesday that Manafort said he expects "will be pleasing to the Trump campaign and to Republicans." And the red, white, and blue balloons are locked and loaded, ready to drop after Trump's speech on Thursday.
For the second night, Trump’s family delivered his most effective testimonials. On Monday, his wife, Melania, painted a touching portrait of her husband, but that inspiration turned to dismay when it was revealed that part of her remarks were apparently lifted from a 2008 speech given by Michelle Obama.
On Tuesday, Trump's eldest son and youngest daughter gave stirring tributes to their father.
Tiffany Trump, a 22-year-old who recently graduated college, recalled her father’s encouragement when she brought her report card home as youngster. Donald Jr., a vice president in the family real-estate and branding business, sounded like one of his father’s delegates, giving a charged speech rich in conservative orthodoxy, criticism of Clinton’s leadership, and stories of his father's knack for inspiring employees and refusing to back down.
“When someone tells him what’s impossible, that triggers him into action,” Donald Jr. said, adding, “He changed the skyline of New York.” He may run for office himself once his kids are grown, Donald Jr. told reporters Wednesday.
But some Republicans and political analysts doubt Trump's family can make him more popular, especially with Melania Trump's mixed performance in public opinion surveys.
"There's a heavy discount applied to anything said by a family member," said Alan Abramowitz, a political-science professor at Emory University. "The fact that you've treated your family well and taken care of them doesn't really offset these negative perceptions among Latinos and African-Americans about things you've said and done."
In the latest round of questions about who was responsible for the speech mishap, Manafort, who has said the similarities don't constitute plagiarism, said Wednesday on Fox News, “I wasn’t involved in the process. It was a collaborative process. What came in where, I don’t know." And a day after ousted campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said that if Manafort were responsible for the problem he would "do the right thing and resign," Donald Trump Jr. fired back, saying, “Corey’s been a great surrogate but I’m not going to allow nonsense to be perpetuated because someone’s looking to get on TV."
Ryan Williams, a spokesman for GOP nominee Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign, noted that unlike his former boss, views of Trump are deeply entrenched. Trump is trailing Clinton by 62 points among Hispanics, 77 points among blacks, and 15 points among women, according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo survey released Monday.
"Trump has been defined for 30 years in the national spotlight by his TV persona, his business dealings and his tabloid exploits," Williams said. "Voters already know Donald Trump and have fairly set impressions of who he is."
So far, anyway, the convention hasn't done much to change that.
-- With assistance from Sahil Kapur in Cleveland.