CHICAGO » The first signs of how much turbulence Donald Trump will face on his convention flight to the Republican presidential nomination will be on display in committee meeting rooms this week in Cleveland.
Inside the Huntington Convention Center, a few blocks from the arena where Trump is expected to accept the nomination on July 21, the Republican National Convention’s Platform and Rules committees will debate what the party stands for and how the following week’s convention will operate.
In normal presidential election years, the sessions garner little attention. This year is different, as a band of rogue delegates tries to use the Rules Committee that convenes late in the week to make what amounts to their final push for a long-shot plan to block the billionaire from becoming the party’s standard-bearer. “The focus on internal deliberations and machinations is unprecedented,” said Matt Moore, chairman of the South Carolina GOP and a member of the convention’s Rules Committee. “Usually, these meetings are boring and uninteresting events. This week, they’ll be covered with a microscope and there will be parsing of every word for intent and meaning.”
The convention itself is almost certain to be the scene of protest and potential violence, with nervousness heightened following the killing of five police officers last week in Dallas. There are pro- and anti-Trump demonstrations planned for each day of the convention, and the presumptive nominee has suggested there could be riots if he’s denied the nomination.
If the pre-convention week does deliver any political drama, it isn’t likely to do so initially. The 112-member Platform Committee meets Monday and Tuesday for sessions that aren’t expected to be too confrontational, even if they expose gaps in policy views between the party’s activists and Trump on such things as gay marriage.
The potential for intrigue grows later in the week as the 112-member Rules Committee meets on Thursday and Friday. Many eyes will be on Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a political ally of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who finished second in the nomination process and may seek to use his delegates to try to shape the party for a potential 2020 presidential bid.
The conservative, joined by his wife on the panel, is one of the highest-profile committee members and has been noncommittal on his views about whether the results of this year’s primaries and caucuses should continue to bind many of the delegates to Trump on the first round of nomination balloting.
Trump won more than the 1,237 delegates needed for the nomination with the 13.3 million votes he secured in state primaries and caucuses. Yet organizers of the “Free the Delegates” movement want to see the party’s rules changed so that delegates who are bound by election results can “vote their conscience” in Cleveland.
The anti-Trump effort needs at least 28 votes from the Rules Committee — a quarter of the total 112-member panel — to win a minority report that would then have to be considered by the full convention when it convenes July 18.
Kendal Unruh, a high school government teacher and member of the Rules Committee from Colorado who is also a delegate for Cruz and a leader of the dump Trump effort, said enough votes have already been secured for a minority report.
She declined to say how many delegates have pledged to support the idea of allowing delegates to be unbound from election results at the full convention, although late last month she told Bloomberg Politics they totaled about 400.
There will be 2,472 delegates at the convention. Trump has the backing of 1,542 delegates, including 1,447 who are required by current party rules to vote for him on the first ballot, according to an Associated Press tally.
Steve Duprey, a longtime RNC member from New Hampshire and member of the Rules Committee, said he thinks there are only about a dozen votes on the committee to unbind the delegates. In fact, he doubts many of the rule changes being proposed will pass.
“I think most people think the rules worked pretty well and they’re in pretty good shape,” he said. “I’m sure there’ll be fights and skirmishes, but I think the end result when the dust settles is these rules won’t be changed much.”
Charlie Black, a longtime Republican strategist who has worked multiple presidential conventions and helped lead Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s effort to wrangle delegates when a contested convention this year appeared likely, said he doesn’t expect any challenge to Trump in Cleveland to ultimately succeed.
“It’s not going anywhere,” he said. “A movement has to have leaders, it has to have credible leaders.”
While there will be a discussion about trying to deny Trump the nomination, the appropriate time to deal with that was during the primaries, said Matt Borges, who has worked closely with the Republican National Committee on the Cleveland convention through his role as chairman of the Ohio GOP.
“We still want to win the White House, and we still don’t want Hillary Clinton anywhere near the White House,” said Borges, who backed Kasich in the primary campaign.
In between the Platform and Rules sessions, the full Republican National Committee will convene for its traditional summer meeting. Counting the RNC’s 168 members — and there are many who are also on the pre-convention week committees, roughly a tenth of the total delegates who will be in Cleveland the following week will be on hand for the warm-up week.
The first action will be in the Platform Committee. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, who is leading the panel, said he has been meeting with Trump and his campaign team and expects the billionaire to accept what will be a conservative document.
“The feedback I continue to get from him is he’s happy with the direction we’re going,” Barrasso said. “I’ve asked him to embrace the platform that the 112 delegates come up with, and I believe that he will.”
The 2016 Republican platform won’t be that much different than the one adopted in 2012, Barrasso said, except to reflect changes in the world since then in the areas of jobs and the economy, national security and executive regulations — issues Trump has been talking about in recent policy speeches.
Barrasso said he has also been talking to Cruz and other former Trump rivals who have delegates on the committee and has assured them it will be a conservative platform. “I don’t know that any candidate agrees with every page and every word of the platform from their own states or nationally,” he said.
The most contentious fight at the platform committee could be about trade because Trump has taken positions against free trade agreements that are more in line with liberal Democrats, said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written a book about presidential primaries and nominations.
Still, it would be possible for Trump to accept vague language about supporting good trade deals without getting into a fight about specific agreements, she said.
The opposition within the party to Trump this year is different than in previous convention fights because it is not based on ideology, Kamarck said.
For example, former Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy made a liberal challenge to President Jimmy Carter at the 1980 Democratic convention, and Ronald Reagan led a conservative movement in his fight against President Gerald Ford at the 1976 Republican convention, Kamarck said. The push against Trump is more about him and his temperament than ideological differences, she said.
Black, who managed the convention platform three times for incumbent Republican presidents, said he expects that activists will push to pass a very conservative platform that will include some things Trump supports and others he doesn’t.
Black said the billionaire can try to get a few items he cares about included or removed, and that ultimately it won’t really affect his campaign after the convention. “You let the activists go wild because that’s where they get to go wild, you talk them out of anything that’s really bad, and then you pass the platform and you go run for president and don’t pay any attention to it,” he said.
Another potential way to affect the nomination outcome is by challenging delegates through the Committee on Contests, which makes initial rulings on eligibility. At the 1952 Republican convention, Dwight D. Eisenhower outmaneuvered Robert Taft on seating contested delegates to win.
Even so, there have been fewer challenges this year than in 2012, and not enough to affect the nominating process, said Jim Dicke, an national committeeman from Ohio and member of the nine-member Committee on Contests.
Dicke, chairman of Crown Equipment Corp. and a top Republican fundraiser who backed Kasich during the primaries, said that while there clearly is opposition to Trump, he thinks the billionaire could still get the nomination even if the delegates were free to vote for anyone on the first ballot.
“People have come to terms with the fact that this is what the electorate wanted, and whether they agree with it personally or not, the mood that I hear is that the delegates are ready to do what the electorate wants,” he said.
(John McCormick reported from Chicago. Mark Niquette reported from Columbus, Ohio.)
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