Republican vice presidential nominee, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, takes the stage during the third day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Republican vice presidential nominee, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, takes the stage during the third day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Republicans try to shift their focus to issues

The Washington Post

CLEVELAND — Republican leaders attempted Wednesday to steer their national convention in a more substantive and unified direction behind GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, but their efforts came up against more eruptions of lingering bitterness from the brutal primary campaign season.

The capstone of the evening should have been a speech by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the newly named vice-presidential nominee. But the more riveting moment came earlier, when Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas pointedly refused to endorse Trump, who had bested him in the race for the nomination, and urged Republicans to “vote your conscience.”

As Cruz was speaking, delegates chanted, “Endorse Trump!” — to which the senator replied dismissively, “I appreciate the enthusiasm of the New York delegation.”

Cruz was jeered off the stage as Trump entered the hall and gave a thumbs-up.

In response, delegates from Washington, Utah and Arizona, some with the word “troublemaker” attached to their floor passes, began shouting, “Ted! Ted! Ted!”

The scene showed that many party stalwarts have not reconciled themselves to the fact that the celebrity billionaire who vanquished 16 opponents in the primary will be their standard-bearer in the fall. Their resistance continues, even though speaker after speaker pleaded with them to consider that the alternative is a Hillary Clinton presidency.

“After a long and spirited primary, the time for fighting each other is over. It’s time to come together and fight for a new direction for America. It’s time to win in November,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another defeated candidate. But he spoke via video, having decided to avoid the convention.

The call for unity was the sentiment of many on the convention floor, as well.

“There’s a lot of diversity in our party and that’s a strength of our Republican Party,” said West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. “I have a lot of respect for Ted Cruz. But I’ve made the choice that I’m all in to defeat Hillary Clinton, and everyone should be all in to defeat Hillary Clinton.”

Clinton has been a stronger unifier of the Republican Party than Trump. As happened during the first two days of the convention, the hall broke into calls of “Lock her up!” on Wednesday when those onstage referred to the controversy over Clinton’s unauthorized use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.

But several of the speakers dwelled less on painting a relentlessly negative portrayal of the state of the country and more on framing the choice that will confront voters in the fall on national security, the economy and the future of the Supreme Court, among other things.

The theme of the evening was “Make America First Again,” and it was aimed at setting the stage for the most important moment of the four-day convention: Trump’s acceptance speech Thursday night.

“The Democrats have not led us to a crossroads, they have led us to a cliff,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott told the gathering. “But this election is not actually about Donald Trump — or Hillary Clinton. In fact, this election is not about you or me. This election is about the very survival of the American dream.”

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who had been in the running to become Trump’s vice-presidential pick, warned: “When you hear about Hillary’s dishonesty, or the emails, or taking millions from the Saudis and other Middle Eastern dictatorships, remember: This is not about politics. The cost of Hillary’s dishonesty could be the loss of America as we know it.”

Pence’s speech had intentional echoes of one of the most famous ones that Ronald Reagan gave: his 1964 “Time for Choosing” speech on behalf of that year’s presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater.

That nationally televised address is often considered the moment when Reagan went from being seen as a Hollywood actor to becoming one of the most influential leaders of a burgeoning conservative movement.

Pence’s speech used not only the title phrase but also a call to a “rendezvous with destiny” and a dismissive reference to the presumption that a “little intellectual elite in a far distant capital can plan our lives better for us than we can plan them for ourselves.”

Pence and others acknowledged that Trump’s personal style can rub many the wrong way, but they portrayed his personal qualities as evidence that he is a strong and authentic leader.

“I’ll grant you, he can be a little rough with politicians on a stage, and I’ll bet we see that again. But I’ve seen this good man up close. His utter lack of pretense, his respect for the people who work for him and his devotion to his family,” Pence said.

The expectation that Cruz’s comments would fall somewhere short of a full embrace brought a gibe from an earlier speaker, conservative radio show host Laura Ingraham.

“We should all — even all you boys with wounded feelings and bruised egos — pledge to support Donald Trump now,” she said.

In addition to Cruz, another former Trump rival, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, spoke from the stage.

However, two others — former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — have been notable no-shows at the convention. Kasich’s boycott is particularly awkward, given the fact that he is governor of the state where the convention is taking place, and has been making appearances in this city.

There was also some drama outside Quicken Loans Arena, where the convention is being held.

After two days of mostly restrained protests, tensions briefly escalated Wednesday afternoon when demonstrators burned an American flag outside an entrance point for delegates.

A small far-left political group called the Revolutionary Communists said it was responsible. The organization has been active in protests against police brutality and has been one of the more visible groups protesting during the convention.

“This was a planned action,” said Carl Dix, the group’s founder. “A flag was burned, and then the police descended on people, some people were arrested.”

There was also the lingering drama from the Monday address by Trump’s wife, Melania, which included portions lifted from the speech that Michelle Obama gave at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, when her husband, Barack Obama, was running for president.

In a statement issued using the Trump Organization letterhead and not the campaign insignia, a staff member took responsibility for the insertion of the material and apologized. She said that she offered to resign but that Trump and his family encouraged her to stay.

Meredith McIver said she was an “in-house staff writer” who worked on the speech.

“A person she has always liked is Michelle Obama,” McIver said of Melania Trump. “Over the phone, she read me some passages from Mrs. Obama’s speech as examples. I wrote them down and later included some of the phrasing in the draft that ultimately became the final speech.”

Shortly before the campaign distributed McIver’s statement, Trump addressed the controversy via Twitter, although he did not weigh in on allegations that his wife had borrowed language from the first lady’s speech. Multiple commentators and Trump opponents have said the duplication of the phrases amounts to plagiarism.

“Good news is Melania’s speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics especially if you believe that all press is good press!” he wrote in one message. And he attempted to shift blame to Clinton, writing, “The media is spending more time doing a forensic analysis of Melania’s speech than the FBI spent on Hillary’s emails.”

VIDEO:

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz explains why the Trump campaign is still talking about plagiarism two days after Melania Trump’s RNC speech.

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