Los Angeles Times
Posted with permission from Tribune Content Agency

CLEVELAND — Mixing put-downs with protest, Republicans opened their national convention Monday still working to reconcile themselves to the takeover of their party by business tycoon Donald Trump, who put his unmistakable stamp on the program.

Onstage in a hall bathed in red, white and blue, a parade of speakers sung Trump's virtues, portraying him as strong and decisive, canny and compassionate, unbeholden to Washington and selfless in a way the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is not.

Instead of "a woman who somehow feels that she's entitled to the presidency ... we can go for Donald Trump, a man doing this from the goodness of his heart (who) genuinely wants to help," said actor Scott Baio, one of a grab bag of speakers that included Trump's wife, Melania, but few of the political stars who normally populate the convention stage.

Breaking with the usual protocol, which calls for him to absent himself until his Thursday night acceptance speech, Trump swooped in from Manhattan to offer a brief introduction of his wife, calling her "an amazing mother, an incredible woman."

She responded in kind.

"With all of my heart, I know that he will make a great and lasting difference," the potential first lady said in the accent of her native Slovenia. "Donald has a great and deep and unbounding determination and a never-give-up attitude.

"If you want someone to fight for you and your country, I can assure you, he is the guy," she went on. "He will never, ever give up. And, most importantly, he will never, ever let you down."

The speech won raves inside the convention hall, but the response quickly turned to criticism when it became evident that several lines were strikingly similar to the speech first lady Michelle Obama delivered at the Democratic convention in 1988.

And on the streets of downtown Cleveland, in hotel function rooms and, for a time, on the convention floor, the tone was considerably less welcoming toward a figure who has upended not only the GOP but also many of the norms of politics and civil discourse.

Just three hours after the four-day convention was gaveled open, chaos briefly descended when anti-Trump activists sought to force a vote on a rule that would have allowed delegates to vote as they wished instead of being bound to the presumptive nominee.

The presiding chairman briefly fled the stage rather than allow a potentially embarrassing roll call vote, prompting a wave of boos and shouts, which Trump backers sought to drown out with chants of "U-S-A!"

After several minutes of tumult, Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas took the stage wielding the gavel and called for a voice vote instead of polling delegates. With that, a majority shouted its affirmation and turned back the anti-Trump forces, who nevertheless vowed to fight on.

But on the convention stage at least, there was not a discouraging word.

In the session's most robust appearance, a hollering and arm-waving Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, shouted out a vociferous endorsement of the presumptive nominee.

"I am sick and tired of the defamation of Donald Trump by the media and by the Clinton campaign!" he said as delegates leaped to their feet with a roar. "I am sick and tired of it!"

The program had the politically idiosyncratic mark of Trump, though it fell short of his boastful preview; he had promised A-list stars, but several on the podium were no longer household names or never had been.

Although the day's theme was security at home and abroad, and the lineup of speakers included several with military and other backgrounds to inform their views, there were many more personalities with no obviously relevant credentials, and the scattershot nature of their addresses reflected that.

Melania Trump, who appeared as the featured speaker in TV's prime time, is a former fashion model who studied architecture and design.

Willie Robertson, who stars in the reality show "Duck Dynasty," opened the program with his long hair wrapped in a star-spangled bandanna.

"I can promise you this: No matter who you are, Donald Trump will have your back," Robertson said, a line he repeated several times referring to America's service members, business owners, police officers, job hunters and those who feel "the deck is stacked against you and you just can't win."

"He may not always tell you what you want to hear. You may not always agree. And it may not always be politically correct," Robertson said. "But ... Donald Trump will always, always, tell you the truth as he sees it."

Moments of gravity mixed in with the celebrity froth.

Several speakers spoke intimately about the 2012 attack on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans — an event Republicans blame on Clinton. Several in the convention hall were moved to tears.

The mother of one victim, Sean Smith, spoke of her frustration dealing with the State Department, which Clinton led at the time, and accused Clinton of lying to her about the cause of the attack, which was initially attributed to an inflammatory video.

"How could she do this to me?" Patricia Smith said, her voice choked with emotion. "How could she do this to any American family?"

But in a fitting coda to one of the odder days in recent convention history, the evening petered to a close after Melania Trump finished her speech, walking off arm in arm with her husband.

The overwhelming majority of delegates quickly abandoned the hall. By the time one of the night's featured speakers, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, took the stage, she addressed a cavern of empty seats.

The upheaval at the afternoon session was just one of many signs this would not be a typical convention, robotically scripted and hermetically designed to eliminate the slightest discord.

The sun had barely cleared the high rises overlooking Lake Erie when the chairman of Trump's campaign, Paul Manafort, took a rhetorical jab at the host governor, Ohio's John Kasich, an erstwhile Trump rival for the GOP nomination. Kasich has refused to endorse Trump and said he would steer clear of the convention stage.

"He's making a big mistake," Manafort said on MSNBC, drawing groans from an audience sitting in. "He's hurting his state and embarrassing his state, frankly."

Kasich defenders immediately fired back on Twitter, one of Trump's favorite creative outlets, suggesting Manafort, in the words of Ohio Republican Chairman Matt Borges, "still has a lot to learn about Ohio politics."

Manafort, however, was far from contrite.

At a morning briefing with reporters, he reiterated his criticism of Kasich, then turned his sights on Republicans' dynastic Bush family. In a break with custom, former President George H.W. Bush and his son, former President George W. Bush, are boycotting the convention along with others in their extended political clan.

"Certainly the Bush family, while we would have liked to have had them, they're part of the past," Manafort said. "We're dealing with the future."

Setting out the week's intended themes — getting voters to look anew at Trump, litigating the "failures of the Obama administration," attacking Clinton — Manafort suggested the lowest priority was unifying the party.

"The unification is happening," he said despite evidence to the contrary. "We hope that when the Bush family decides to participate again in the political process, they will join us. But healing takes time, and we understand that."

It was clear many in the party were still coming around to accepting Trump, who defeated a number of long-serving stalwarts, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to seize the GOP nomination.

At a gathering of Iowa delegates, the state's veteran U.S. senator, Charles E. Grassley, plainly acknowledged many in the party still have doubts about Trump. Tell them "two words," Grassley advised: "Supreme Court."

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hit the same note, telling Iowans that "whether Donald Trump was your first choice, your second choice or your 17th choice," he is "better than Hillary Clinton."


(Staff writers Cathleen Decker, David Lauter, Lisa Mascaro, Seema Mehta, Melanie Mason and James Queally contributed to this report.)