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Curtain goes up on Trump show

Curtain goes up on Trump show
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The curtain is about to rise on the most extraordinary political convention of modern times.

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Iran says onus is on US to rejoin nuclear deal on third anniversary of withdrawal Assaults on Roe v Wade increasing MORE, a man who has never run for political office before, is about to become the Republican presidential nominee.

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Trump has flouted every rule of campaigning known to the modern strategist, and his candidacy was roundly mocked at its inception.

Yet in three days, he will be the standard-bearer of the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan.

The Republican National Convention, starting Monday in Cleveland, is a source of enormous excitement for his supporters. But there is trepidation, too, especially among those Republicans who have not yet reconciled themselves to Trump’s candidacy. 

They fear a chaotic convention that could deepen doubts about Trump’s steadiness and his ability to serve as commander in chief, something that is already a weak point for him in opinion polls. Any controversy has the potential to inflict damage on the Republican brand and hurt down-ballot candidates, they fear.

There are real worries, too, about trouble erupting in Cleveland involving left-wing groups that are vociferously opposed to Trump’s candidacy. The business mogul’s rallies have been marked by disruptions from such protesters already, some of which have led to full-on violence.

Around 50,000 people are expected to travel to the city for the convention. Ohio does not prohibit the open carrying of firearms, and the only exception made during the event will be for the convention hall itself: Quicken Loans arena, home to the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Weapons will be permitted inside a larger “event zone” in the immediate vicinity.

Ron Bonjean, a longtime Republican strategist in Washington, described the convention as “historic” — in part because it represents the capstone of Trump’s success in vanquishing a field of vastly more experienced contenders during the GOP presidential primary.

But Bonjean said the convention was exceptional in darker ways as well.

“Most people going to the convention are very concerned about protesters turning the city upside down and the idea that, while Donald Trump is speaking, there could be a split-screen with protesters throwing Molotov cocktails at cops. Definitely, that possibility looms in your mind.”

Ratcheting up the tension even further, the convention is occurring at a tumultuous national moment. On Sunday, three police officers were shot dead in Baton Rouge, La., a city that has been tense since police shot and killed Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, on July 5. The reverberations of the killing of five police officers in Dallas on July 7 are still being felt, while issues of race and criminal justice continue to roil the country. 

The political implications of rioting or other disorder during the convention are difficult to gauge, however. While it could harm Trump by cementing the sense of the nominee as a divisive figure, it could shake out in other ways, too.

“Trump has been pretty adroit at taking outside events that are sort of focused on him and capitalizing on that,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. If there were violent protests, he added, “Trump will absolutely use them as a foil and to reinforce his message that you’ve got a lot of bad actors out there, and this is just more proof that the country you love is not respected by everyone. My best guess is that any protests will play into Trump’s hands.”

Even if the convention does not lurch toward disorder, it will be unlike any other that has been seen.

At the center of it all will be Trump, whose abilities as a showman and entertainer are so well developed they are acknowledged even by those who are appalled by his political rise.

Last week, the real estate mogul and reality TV star utilized those skills to keep the media hanging on every twist in his search for a running mate.

This week, the same abilities will be deployed to bring some pizzazz to the stage of Quicken Loans Arena. Several figures from beyond the world of politics will speak, as will all four of Trump’s adult children.

And it wouldn’t be a Trump show if there were not some surprises.

Speeches from Trump’s children could be especially important, as well as effective. His daughter Ivanka is widely seen as one of his most influential advocates. Testimonials to his attributes as a father could help soften public perceptions of a candidate whose dominant image is one of rambunctiousness and, sometimes, anger.

“That’s going to be a Chelsea Clinton moment — trotting the kids out to show that, in fact, the parents are warm, loving, caring people,” said Berkovitz. “And underlining that they are parents, not just these caricatures that you see on the Sunday morning news clips.” 

Trump and his aides will hope that such moments, as well as star turns from other nonpoliticians, can help the businessman with the huge swath of the American public that does not bother to follow every turn of the campaign. 

“Donald Trump is a master entertainer,” said Bonjean. “He understands the power of television and the impact of visual messaging. It is likely that each night is going to bring audiences something unique and different, culminating in the Thursday night performance.”

But such moves are also riven with risk, as Mitt Romney — a candidate infinitely more buttoned up than Trump — found to his detriment at the 2012 GOP convention. The most memorable moment of that gathering came just before Romney’s crucial speech. The bizarre spectacle of Clint Eastwood addressing an empty chair as if it were President Obama overshadowed the candidate’s remarks.

The specter of that occasion haunts some Republicans who are skeptical of Trump.

Dan Judy, a GOP strategist who worked on the campaign of one of Trump’s most serious primary rivals, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDemocrats cool on Crist's latest bid for Florida governor Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  MORE (Fla.), said that he was “concerned” about the convention’s organization.

“The [Republican] Party professionals who are working on it are going to do a fantastic job,” Judy said. “But any problems will come from the candidate, who has proved himself to be undisciplined and freewheeling. ... What you worry about with Trump is that every time he comes out, you have the equivalent of Clint Eastwood talking to a chair.”

There are some Republicans who still believe they can prevent Trump from claiming the nomination. There have been several efforts in the last few weeks aimed at somehow prying delegates free from their apparent obligation to back the billionaire, at least on the first ballot.

That effort has been undercut by a number of factors, however, including the lack of an obvious alternative nominee and the fact that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has spoken plainly in declaring Trump the presumptive nominee.

But that doesn’t mean it will be all plain sailing for Trump. 

Aside from the possibility of isolated protests on the floor, the speech of Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCheney drama exposes GOP's Trump rifts Pollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls MORE (R-Texas) at the convention will be parsed for signs of dissent from Trump’s candidacy. The same goes for addresses from the two highest-ranking Republicans in Congress, Senate Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAssaults on Roe v Wade increasing Trump spokesman says defeating Cheney a top priority Biden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push MORE (Ky.) and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney Budowsky: Liz Cheney vs. conservatives in name only Cheney at donor retreat says Trump's actions 'a line that cannot be crossed': report MORE (Wis.).

The list of Republicans who have chosen not to attend the convention also tells its own story. Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteSununu seen as top recruit in GOP bid to reclaim Senate Lobbying world Overnight Defense: NATO expanding troops in Iraq MORE (N.H.), John McCainJohn Sidney McCainEx-McSally aide pleads guilty to stealing over 0K in campaign funds DOJ: Arizona recount could violate civil rights laws Cheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women MORE (Ariz.), Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as White House continues to push vaccination effort Overnight Health Care: WHO-backed Covax gets a boost from Moderna Vaccine hesitancy among lawmakers slows return to normalcy on Capitol Hill MORE (Wis.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.) are among those who face reelection in November and will not be making the trip to Cleveland. In all, 18 of the 54 Republican senators are expected to skip the convention.

Those candidates have their particular imperatives to stay away. But for the rest of the political world, love Trump or hate him, a show like no other is about to begin.