CLEVELAND — Republicans opened their national convention here Monday night by weaving savage attacks on Hillary Clinton into testimonials to Donald Trump’s compassion, strength and readiness to be commander-in-chief in the face of terrorist attacks on the homeland and around the world.
After the Republican National Convention got off to a chaotic start because of an afternoon procedural skirmish, Trump made a splashy debut on the convention stage to introduce his wife, Melania, whose speech was a highlight of an otherwise uneven evening.
“I have been with Donald for 18 years, and I have been aware of his love for this country since we first met,” she said. “He never had a hidden agenda when it comes to his patriotism because, like me, he loves his country very much.”
But minutes after she finished, the Quicken Loans Arena began emptying out as retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn delivered a rambling and unfocused speech that dragged on for nearly half an hour.
The result: Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, poised to deliver a breakout performance, could not take the stage until well after prime time and addressed a mostly empty arena.
“Hillary Clinton has failed to stop the expansion of terrorism,” Ernst said, adding: “She is entirely unfit to serve as our nation’s commander-in-chief.”
The Trumps were the stars of Monday night’s show, however. Donald strode onto the convention stage about 10:20 p.m., walking out in silhouette to Queen’s anthem, “We Are the Champions.”
“We’re going to win so big,” the candidate vowed, as he introduced his wife, Melania, for her keynote address.
A former fashion model born in Slovenia, Melania Trump has shied away from public speaking. Monday night, she spoke with composure and movingly talked about her husband’s love of family and country.
“Donald thinks big, which is especially important when considering the presidency of the United States,” she said. “No room for small thinking. No room for small results. Donald gets things done.”
Melania Trump sought to broaden her husband’s appeal to the general population, including groups that have been outright hostile to his candidacy, saying that love binds their family and that together they would bring compassion to the White House.
“Donald intends to represent all the people, not just some of the people,” she said. “That includes Christians and Jews and Muslims. It includes Hispanics and African Americans and Asians and the poor and the middle class.”
Afterward, Donald Trump returned to the stage, kissed his wife and pointed at her with his signature gesture, as if to show her off to the roaring crowd.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani gave one of the night’s most impassioned addresses, strongly defending Trump, whom he has known for decades.
“What I did for New York, Donald Trump will do for America,” said Giuliani, who steered his city through the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Many of the earlier speakers delivered hard-edged remarks seemingly designed to play to Trump’s base supporters. A trio of speakers railed against undocumented immigrants – whom they repeatedly called “illegal aliens” – for killing their loved ones and argued that only Trump could keep the country safe.
“My son’s life was stolen at the hands of an illegal alien,” said Mary Ann Mendoza, mother of fallen police Sgt. Brandon Mendoza. “It’s time we had an administration that cares more about Americans than about illegals. A vote for Hillary is putting all our children’s lives at risk.”
Others who took the stage in prime time here in Cleveland aimed at Clinton.
Patricia Smith, whose son Sean died in the 2012 terrorist attacks on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, reduced convention delegates to tears with an emotional address about her son’s death – which she said she blames on Clinton, the-then secretary of state.
“I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son,” Smith said. She pointed out a delegate holding up a “Hillary for Prison” sign and said, “That’s right – Hillary for prison. She deserves to be in stripes.”
Smith served as the moving opening act in a series of presentations about Clinton’s handling of the Benghazi attacks, the subject of many congressional and other investigations. Giuliani accused her of “dereliction of duty” in Benghazi.
“She loves her pantsuits,” said Darryl Glenn, a GOP Senate candidate in Colorado. “But we should send her an e-mail and tell her that she deserves a bright orange jumpsuit.”
A few speakers aimed their remarks to the broader electorate. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), for instance, said twice, “Help is on the way” – a memorable line from conventions past, including the 2000 speech by former vice president Richard B. Cheney.
A number of speakers of color echoed Trump’s core themes of grievance, including some racial provocations.
“Frankly, somebody with a nice tan needs to say this: All lives matter,” said Glenn, who is black.
David Clarke, the Milwaukee County sheriff, who also is African American, cried out “Blue lives matter in America.” His call of support for law enforcement officers was received with chants of “USA! USA! USA!” in the convention hall. Clarke went on to criticize the Black Lives Matter movement.
Giuliani bemoaned the racial divisions on display across the country and that first responders “have a target on their back.”
“When they come to save your life, they don’t ask if you are black or white,” the former mayor said. “They just come to save you.”
An emotional high point early in the night was a speech from Marcus Luttrell, the former Navy SEAL immortalized as the “Lone Survivor,” who got involved in politics after former Texas governor Rick Perry and his wife, Anita, took him in as a surrogate son and nursed him to health.
Luttrell said that after spending time with Trump, he is confident the business mogul could fix chronic problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We’ve got to make sure the hell the veterans return from is not the hell the veterans come home to, okay?” Luttrell said. “That’s what was promised and that’s what’s deserved. Period.”
The focus on national security and immigration comes at a perilous time. Recent terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad, coupled with police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., have created fear and worry.
Willie Robertson, the long-bearded star of “Duck Dynasty,” took the podium wearing an American flag bandana around his head and vowed repeatedly that Trump would “have your back.”
During the convention’s afternoon proceedings, anti-Trump forces expressed vocal dissent from the convention floor, though party officials snuffed out attempts to slow Trump’s march to the presidential nomination.
A renegade group of delegates seeking to force a rules vote that would have embarrassed Trump fell short. They were hoping to register disapproval of new party rules that favor Trump, but a handful of state delegations backed out under pressure from party leaders.
The outcome cleared the path for Trump, who touched down in Cleveland around 7:30 p.m., to accept the GOP presidential nomination later this week without having to clear new hurdles. But it underscored the deep rifts that continue to plague the Republican Party during a week that was supposed to reflect unity.
The Trumps arrive in a convention city with Republican rifts ever raw, both on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena and on the sidelines. Trump’s top backers on Monday aggressively disparaged Ohio Gov. John Kasich and other Republicans who have declined to support the celebrity mogul for president – an unusual provocation for a team hoping to foster unity.
On the convention floor, pro-Trump Republicans dealt the decisive blow to anti-Trump Republicans in a pair of voice votes. That prompted an outcry and a disorderly sequence of events on that was broadcast live on cable news networks.
“Roll call vote! Roll call vote!” angry delegates chanted, while Trump supporters sought to overpower them with chants of “Trump! Trump!” The Colorado delegation briefly walked off the floor.
Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a Trump critic, expressed befuddlement and indignation that no roll call vote was held and that the podium was briefly abandoned.
“There’s no precedent for this in parliamentary procedure,” Lee told reporters on the convention floor. “We are now in uncharted territory.” He called the outcome “surreal.”
Earlier in the day, former senator Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire came to the convention floor claiming to be holding a packet of documents with the requisite number of signatures from enough states to force the vote they wanted. Trailed by dozens of reporters, Humphrey delivered the signatures to a convention official, who reviewed them.
But that’s as far as it went, as three state delegations pulled back their support, according to Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, who presided over the drama. That left the Trump foes below the threshold they needed to reach.
Separately, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said it was “unacceptable” for former candidates who pledged to support the eventual nominee to hold out now. And Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort targeted Kasich, who is in Cleveland this week but refusing to step foot in the convention, and the Bush family, who are skipping the festivities altogether.
The broadsides from Trump allies, which drew some swift rebuttals from Kasich backers, inflamed tensions at the start of the quadrennial confab, which will feature four days of speeches, meetings and parties that will culminate in Trump’s formal acceptance speech on Thursday night.
“Certainly the Bush family, we would have liked to have had them. They’re part of the past. We’re dealing with the future,” Manafort told reporters Monday morning. Manafort said on MSNBC that Kasich was “embarrassing his state” by skipping the convention.
Christie reminded Michigan Republicans that as a candidate for president, he and other GOP candidates pledged to support the eventual nominee.
“It is unacceptable to me, and it should be unacceptable to you that anyone who signed that pledge is not now adhering to that pledge and supporting our party’s nominee,” said Christie. The governor, who is now a staunch Trump supporter and surrogate, didn’t call anyone out by name.
As White House hopefuls, Kasich and former Florida governor Jeb Bush pledged loyalty to the eventual nominee before later backing away. So did Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.). Like Bush and Kasich, Cruz has not endorsed Trump. But Cruz is speaking at the convention.
Kasich’s allies defended the governor on social media. Ohio GOP Chairman Matt Borges tweeted: “Manafort still has a lot to learn about Ohio politics. Doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Hope he can do better.”
“Impossible to know ‘strategy’ behind this,” tweeted John Weaver, a top Kasich adviser in his presidential run.
Christie added: “Everyone has a right to their own conscience and their own beliefs. But the fact of the matter is, as I said before, if you’re a Republican and you have voted for Republican nominees for president and you’re not working for Donald Trump, you’re working for Hillary. And that’s the bottom line.”
For Trump, the convention comes at a crucial time. He is trying to put weeks of distracting feuds and staff turnover behind him and demonstrate to the country that he is the best-qualified candidate for the White House.
Peter Holley, Jenna Johnson, Louisa Loveluck, Karen Tumulty and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.