When California cast its votes to nominate Donald Trump on Tuesday, California’s elder Republican statesman, Pete Wilson, was nowhere to be seen.
Instead, businesswoman Shirley Husar, an entrepreneur and blogger from Pasadena attending her second convention, energetically took on the speaking role typically reserved for California elected leaders or state party officials.
“Mr. Chairman, Donald Trump is the candidate that can provide for my boys, and all Californians, the hope and opportunity of the true America,” she said, surrounded by her three sons on the convention floor and screaming “whooo” into the microphone.
The deviation was emblematic of the unconventional convention unfolding this week in Cleveland, and the hotel 60 miles away that is the temporary home to the California delegation. From the state’s lineup of delegates to the daily program, the event the New York businessman promoted as “amazing” doesn’t exactly fit the formula of a typical Republican National Convention.
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On the national level, many of the differences were planned.
At the rostrum on Monday, a collection of unusual prime-time speakers began with Willie Robertson, of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” who said Trump “will have your back” and “always – always – tell you the truth as he sees it.” Scott Baio, of “Happy Days,” conceded Trump is not a “Messiah.” “No, he is just a man – a man who wants to give back to his country, America.” Soap star and former underwear model Antonio Sabato Jr. talked about his family’s struggles under communism.
Before Trump’s wife, Melania, addressed the prime-time audience, her husband stood before the convention in striking silhouette, smoke billowing at his feet as Queen’s “We Are the Champions” played, before welcoming his wife to the stage. Presidential nominees in recent history have waited until later in the week to appear at their conventions. On Tuesday evening, he addressed the convention on the big screen to thank them for the nomination.
“It’s very Trump,” said Fred Karger, the political consultant and gay rights activist who appeared at his 11th convention as a guest of the California delegation. “It’s a different kind of convention because he’s just excited a whole new crop of people.”
From the start, however, some of the unusual events weren’t on the program. The Trump campaign on Monday publicly feuded with party officials from Ohio, a pivotal swing state, after criticizing their governor, John Kasich. House Speaker Paul Ryan confessed that Trump was “not my kind of conservative,” while calling on activists to coalesce around him. A boisterous yet brief attempt to impede Trump’s nomination broke out on the convention floor before a surprised public.
After Sabato’s speech, he went off script on ABC News, where he said he “absolutely” believes President Barack Obama is Muslim.
Then it surfaced that Melania Trump, a Slovenian American former model, used some wording almost identical to phrases spoken by Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, a story that raged on social media. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, said Tuesday that “there was no cribbing” of Obama, while Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, said the speechwriter responsible should be fired from the campaign.
Queen, the British rock band, tweeted that its song had been used “against our wishes.”
Hillary Clinton called the convention “surreal” and compared the event to the “Wizard of Oz.” She mocked it for “lots of sound and fury” and “even a fog machine.”
Ken Khachigian, a veteran of several presidential campaigns who worked for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, downplayed the early missteps and suggested they would dissipate once Trump gives a serviceable acceptance speech and presents as a unified ticket with running mate Mike Pence.
“It will probably blow over and be forgotten by the time the campaign starts in earnest,” Khachigian said. “It may be over by the time the convention ends.”
But Sam Popkin, author of the book “The Candidate: What It Takes To Win – and Hold – the White House,” said the flubs so far are like nothing the country has seen in a long time.
There was the 1972 nominating convention in Miami, where Democrats waged a protracted platform fight over the Vietnam War and abortion, remembered as a disastrous start to George McGovern’s general election campaign.
Amid the chaos, several Democrats refused to be McGovern’s running mate before he finally, and briefly, settled on Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri. Eagleton was removed within days after it was revealed he battled depression and received electroshock therapy.
Popkin said Trump’s inability to work with Kasich in Ohio and his campaign’s failure to proof his wife’s speech presage the “amateur” nature of his campaign.
“I don’t know that it matters quite yet, but it often makes the person look like he’s not the whiz of management that could run a government,” said Popkin, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.
Nationally, the list of Republicans keeping their distance is long, from the past two GOP presidential nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, to George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jeb Bush and several U.S. senators.
The absent Wilson, the former California governor and a familiar face at conventions, told The Sacramento Bee he plans to vote for Trump over Clinton in November. However, he made a surprise appearance before the state’s Republican convention this spring to endorse Ted Cruz and issue a warning about nominating Trump.
Trump, Wilson advised, could bring “down-ticket decimation,” adding, “Heaven knows what justices Donald Trump would pick.” Wilson co-led the state delegation four years ago in Tampa, leading a center-right cohort with strong ties to the establishment.
Michael Saragosa, a public affairs consultant and Romney delegate in 2012, has worked on behalf of former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman. Saragosa said he had “absolutely zero interest about going this year.” Schwarzenegger and Whitman stayed away, too.
“They couldn’t be further away,” Saragosa said.
Jon Fleischman, a conservative activist, blogger and political consultant from Orange County, usually hosts nearly two dozen conservative delegates on his convention live blog. This summer, he chose a family vacation on Maui over the “authentic, African-themed” accommodations at the Kalahari resort in Sandusky.
“We are not interested in embracing Donald Trump,” he said.
At least two-thirds of the California delegates are attending their first national convention, said Tim Clark, Trump’s California political director, including a group of Chinese American delegates and their guests wearing T-shirts declaring their love for Trump.
A delegate and political fundraiser in Los Angeles, Charles Moran, brought his parents as alternates and first-timers to a convention.
“This whole election is about bringing in new people and enfranchising new people,” Moran said, surveying the 172-member delegation, which will be visited Wednesday by former “Apprentice” star Omarosa Manigault, who is now director of African American outreach for Trump’s campaign.
“It’s something fresh,” Moran said of the changes. “Something real, and maybe something more authentic.”
If there were setbacks or strange moments, California delegates were undaunted.
After a dozen California Republican staff members and volunteers staying at the delegation’s hotel came down with the the highly contagious norovirus, large dispensers of hand sanitizer stood near the omelet stations at breakfast.
Tom Fife of Tulare County led the local GOP years ago and attended the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego.
Fife said he has been researching Trump though his books, comparing him to the 19th century master of promotion P.T. Barnum. Trump isn’t worried about being “outlandish” to attract attention,” Fife said. He predicted a post-convention bounce in the polls for Trump.
“As long as they are talking about you, right?” Fife said.