CLEVELAND (AP) — A year ago, few imagined Donald Trump as a headline speaker at the Republican National Convention — let alone as its star.
Maybe only the billionaire New Yorker alone thought he would arrive in Cleveland this week as the GOP’s presumptive nominee for president. There are still some Republicans trying to stop him, but the party’s four-day coronation of its unlikely White House hopeful will complete his rise from real estate mogul to potential leader of the free world.
“It was quite a journey,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said. “Not just what he was able to do in getting more votes than any Republican in the history of our party, but do it with 16 people running. It is a remarkable thing.”
Indeed, the man who opened his campaign as a late night TV punchline will face the nation this week as the Republican Party standard bearer, delivering what could be the most watched convention speech of all time.
Trump will do so in a time of tumult at home and abroad.
Authorities said three police officers were shot and killed Sunday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the slaying of a black man by white police officers this month led to protests nationwide and heightened concerns about the state of race relations in America.
Trump’s choice of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate was overshadowed by a terror attack in France and attempted coup in Turkey.
Protests are widely expected outside the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, where the city’s police chief, Calvin Williams, said Sunday that it seems everyone is coming to town to “exercise their First Amendment rights.”
The circumstances only add to the attention placed on Trump and his politically incorrect and unscripted campaign, which has successfully tapped into a wave of populist anger that few others saw as the race for president began more than a year ago.
Trump has thrilled supporters with a willingness to hurl insults at Democrats and Republican alike, tearing them down them with pet nicknames: “Little Marco” and “Crooked Hillary” among them. Yet his lack of discipline and disorganized campaign has turned off many Republican leaders, and his blunt tone and aggressive approach to immigration and terrorism has done the same with key segments of general election voters: women, blacks and Hispanics, especially.
According to any number of preference polls, Trump heads into the convention as one of the most unpopular major party nominees ever.
All of it makes the convention starting Monday must-see TV.
“He doesn’t have natural filters,” New York GOP Chairman Ed Cox said. “Let’s see about the acceptance speech. That’s probably going to be the most watched acceptance speech ever, because it’s going to be dramatic. People don’t know exactly what it’s going to be.”
An estimated 30 million people watched 2012 nominee Mitt Romney address the convention four years ago. After setting ratings records throughout the Republican primary season, Trump could very well shatter that number.
But what those tuning in will see between the chairman’s opening gavel Monday afternoon and when roughly 125,000 balloons fall from the rafters at Quicken Loans Arena at the end of Trump’s speech Thursday night remains, to a large degree, a mystery.
The pre-convention show got off to a rocky start, as the addition of Pence to the ticket dragged out over a few days amid rumblings that Trump was having second thoughts. Trump called the Indian governor “my first choice” when introducing him Saturday in New York, but spent most of his 28-minute speech talking about anything but his new running mate and spent only a few seconds with him on stage.
The Trump campaign has not yet released a full list of convention speakers, or say who will speak when, but plenty of Republicans you might otherwise expect are skipping the show — including the GOP’s two living ex-presidents and its last three presidential nominees. While an official printed convention program features Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rob Portman immediately after its biographies of Trump and his wife, Melania, neither will speak or even appear inside the convention hall.
The only professional athlete on the program is pro golfer Natalie Gulbis, after college football star Tim Tebow called his attendance “a rumor.” Ivanka Trump’s rabbi, scheduled to deliver the opening prayer, also backed out.
Trump and his allies do appear to have quashed a rebellion from the so-called “Never Trump” movement. Rebel delegates still vow to cause convention mischief, but Trump will get an immediate boost when the nomination roll call starts with Alabama. At the mic will be delegation chairman Jeff Sessions, the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump and one of his most full-throated supporters in Congress.
“This ‘Never Trump’ push, it’s been an interesting story, but it’s one of noise at this point, not of substance,” Alabama GOP Chairwoman Terry Lathan said Sunday.
That moment may help Trump score what he needs most from the convention: a picture of a Republican Party united behind his candidacy.
“Unifying the party is important. I’m not saying you can do that instantaneously,” Preibus told The Associated Press. “I think America seeing Trump deliver a keynote on Thursday night, the balloon drop, the feeling of this person can be president of the United States, when people have that image in their mind, I think he’s going to have a lot of horsepower after he does that.”
To do it, the RNC chairman suggests that for this week in Cleveland, the infamously freewheeling Trump would do well to follow the script.
“He does really well on the teleprompters,” he said. “It really is, I think, presidential.”
Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report from Atlanta.