Pence Takes Convention Stage With Republican Unity Elusive

Republican National Convention: Day Three

Mike Pence speaks at the Republican National Convention.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • VP nominee offers soothing words after Cruz booed, jeered
  • Trump still seeking to gain trust among party’s conservatives

Vice presidential nominee Mike Pence was chosen by Donald Trump to unify conservatives behind the Republican ticket only to see his national introduction overshadowed by Ted Cruz getting booed off the convention stage for his refusal to endorse the nominee.

Pence offered a combination of soothing biography, self-deprecating humor and firm testimonial to Trump’s leadership and ideas that was enthusiastically received by delegates in the Cleveland convention hall Wednesday night. He pledged to uphold family values and conservative policy priorities and touted his record as governor of Indiana in cutting public sector jobs while reducing unemployment.

“You have nominated a man for president who never quits, who never backs down,” Pence said of Trump. “We’ll win because we’re running on the issues facing this country and because we’re leveling with the American people about the stakes and the choice.”

It was the type of speech that would have validated Trump’s stated confidence that his pick would deliver party unity, had Cruz not stolen the show in dramatic fashion.

The Texas senator congratulated Trump on his nomination but notably didn’t mention him again or give a direct endorsement of his candidacy, prompting raucous booing throughout the convention hall as his remarks neared their end. While his speech had been frequently interrupted by applause, by its finish waves of boos swept through the crowd along with chants of “Endorse Trump” and “Say his name.” His wife, Heidi, was quickly escorted out of the arena as delegates jeered her.

Top Republican lawmakers expressed outrage with Cruz’s address, which was delivered during prime television viewing time. It infuriated delegates and again prompted questions about whether the Trump campaign had done enough to heal divisions -- or could effectively organize a presidential campaign after repeated, high-profile stumbles throughout this week’s gathering.

Campaign Stumbles

The night was intended for Pence to provide the finale to a series of speeches from the men who Trump defeated in the nomination campaign: Cruz, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. 

Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, said earlier Wednesday that Pence’s speech would "accelerate the unification of the party in a real meaningful way."

But instead, the evening offered another scene of discord within the party. That Cruz overshadowed Pence is particularly troubling for a Trump campaign that has struggled with the transformation from a primary race to a general election campaign, while also blending his outsider appeal with the credibility of the Republican Party and capitalizing on wide disapproval of Hillary Clinton, who is set to be formally nominated by Democrats at their convention next week in Philadelphia.

Speech Vetted

Manafort said he had personally viewed Cruz’s speech ahead of delivery, and Cruz’s speech barely deviated from prepared remarks circulated by the Republican National Committee. That Cruz’s remarks were known prompted new questions about competency from a campaign still trying to shake a lingering controversy over Monday night’s speech by the nominee’s wife, Melania, which borrowed from first lady Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention address. Even as that contretemps was dying down, Trump himself stoked it anew with a defiant tweet saying Melania Trump’s address had earned "more publicity than any in the history of politics."

Then, following on initial claims by the campaign that no plagiarism was involved, a speechwriter for Trump’s company on Wednesday took the blame for inclusion of Michelle Obama’s words in the speech. The campaign said she would not be fired.

Compounding those concerns was an interview with Trump in the New York Times released Wednesday night that rankled members of the Republican foreign policy establishment. In his comments, Trump would not unconditionally say that under his leadership the U.S. would come to the assistance of a NATO country under attack.

Raw Emotions

Cruz’s appearance showed the party’s divisions are still raw. There have been hard feelings among Trump’s allies toward Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who have pointedly refused to give their endorsements to the nominee.

Before Cruz took the stage, Laura Ingraham, a conservative talk radio host, brought the convention floor to its feet with a call for "all you boys with wounded feelings and bruised egos" to make explicit an endorsement for Trump.

"You must honor your pledge to support Donald Trump now," she said. "Tonight."

There were also broader strategic questions hanging over the proceedings, including whether speakers could make an affirmative case for Trump rather than simply amplify criticism of Clinton. The first two days were dominated by speeches critical of the former secretary of state. On Wednesday, a Trump delegate from New Hampshire said during a radio interview that Clinton "should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”

While that rhetoric excited the die-hard Republicans gathered on the convention floor, their chants of "Lock Her Up" and threats of violence risk alienating independent and Democratic voters Trump will need to win.

A Purple Slice online poll for Bloomberg Politics released last week showed Clinton leading Trump 48 percent to 37 percent among college-educated whites, a cohort Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, won by 14 percentage points, according to exit polls. That’s in addition to surveys showing Trump lagging behind Romney’s performance among blacks and Latinos, key demographic coalitions in crucial swing states such as Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and Pennsylvania that have only grown in size since the last election.

Pence, while a darling of social conservatives who should help Trump with the right flank of his party, may also prove a liability with other voters the ticket needs. Pence as governor has signed legislation restricting abortion right and allowing Indiana businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers, as well as an executive order blocking the resettlement of Syrian refugees in his state. He’s also strengthened sentences for drug laws and penned an op-ed calling Disney’s "Mulan" liberal propaganda.

In introducing himself to voters on Wednesday, Pence said he was a "Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order."

The Clinton campaign is sure to highlight that record in a bid to prevent the Republican ticket from making inroads among crucial college-educated and minority voting blocs.

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