It was supposed to be Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s political coming-out party, but drama with Ted Cruz largely overshadowed his moment at the Republican Convention.
The crowd quickly turned on Cruz Wednesday night after he refused to endorse GOP nominee Donald Trump.
The Texas senator and GOP primary runner-up was initially met with a warm reception, holding the crowd in the palm of his hand as he told emotional stories about the recent police shootings in Dallas and how America had to defend the Constitution and the freedoms of speech and religion.
But as Cruz wore on, it became apparent to the very pro-Trump crowd that he was not going to endorse his former rival, telling people they shouldn’t “stay home in November” but they should feel free to “vote your conscience.”
His only mention of Trump was to congratulate him on his official nomination, and by the end of the speech rapt attention had shifted quickly to disdain. Many delegates, including loud exhortations from the New York delegation, began chanting, “Endorse Trump!” As Cruz wrapped, he was booed loudly, though he remained smiling and waving politely as he walked off the stage still without giving an official blessing.
Trump and his children were seated in the audience, keeping blank stares amid the whole scuffle.
When the vice presidential nominee spoke later in the night, he opened by admitting he didn’t have the same flash as the billionaire businessman.
“He’s a man known for his large personality, his colorful style, and his charisma — and, well, I guess he was looking for someone to balance the ticket,” Pence said, laughing.
“For those of you who don’t know me, which is most of you, I grew up on the front row of the American dream,” Pence said, telling the crowd of his upbringing in southern Indiana. He pointed out his mother and his wife, Karen, as the delegates on the floor cheered.
From there, Pence offered the most robust case for Trump so far at the convention.
“You have nominated a man for president who never quits, never backs down, a fighter, a winner,” Pence thundered. “Until now he’s done it all by himself, against all odds. But this week with this united party, he’s got backup!”
“Donald Trump gets it. He’s the genuine article. He’s a doer in a game usually reserved for talkers,” the vice presidential nominee continued. “And when Donald Trump does his talking, he doesn’t tiptoe around the thousand new rules of political correctness. He’s his own man, distinctly American. Where else would an independent spirit like his find a following than in the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
The strong speech made it all the more puzzling why the Trump campaign, even knowing Cruz wouldn’t give a full-throated endorsement, would slot him on the same night as their new No. 2.
A convention source had told NPR’s Domenico Montanaro before Cruz’s speech that the campaign expected “severe blowback” when the Texas senator withheld a Trump endorsement, and the whole drama that ensued seemed to be orchestrated to embarrass Cruz, who sounded for most of his speech like he was kicking off his 2020 presidential campaign.
According to the source, by letting the Texas senator speak anyway it made Trump look like the “bigger man here” as Cruz reneged on the party pledge all candidates had signed to support the eventual GOP nominee. That may have happened, but other important speakers, namely Pence, got completely lost in the shuffle. (Trump tweeted later in the night that he had seen Cruz’s speech “two hours earlier but let him speak anyway.”)
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke after Cruz and tried to give him some cover.
“Ted Cruz said you can vote your conscience for anyone who will uphold the Constitution. In this election, there’s only one candidate who will uphold he Constitution,” Gingrich said, “So, to paraphrase Ted Cruz: if you want to protect the Constitution, the only candidate this fall is the Trump-Pence Republican ticket.”
Two of Trump’s other former rivals also spoke earlier in the evening, and both offered praise for the GOP nominee, though some of it was still pretty tepid.
“Last August, I said that any of the Republicans running would be better than Hillary Clinton. I meant it then, and I mean it now,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said. “So let me be clear: A vote for anyone other than Donald Trump in November is a vote for Hillary Clinton. Make no mistake, we can’t wait four more years and get ’em next time. The consequences are too great.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio spoke via video and spent most of his speech slamming Clinton, but he did say that unlike the presumptive Democratic nominee, Trump would enact conservative policy reforms and appoint conservative judges.
“After a long and spirited primary, the time for fighting is over,” he said. “It’s time to come together and fight for a new direction for America. It’s time to win in November.”
Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham made a rousing speech early in the night, chastising Cruz and other GOP Trump holdouts, saying, “Even all you boys with wounded feelings and bruised egos, we love you but you must honor your pledge to support Donald Trump now tonight.”
Trump’s son, Eric, also spoke on Wednesday night, recounting the unlikely success his father had over the past year.
“None of us could have predicted the records he would break, the stadiums he would fill, the movement he would start,” Eric Trump said. “He stands before you with the most primary votes of any candidate in history.”
NPR’s Barbara Sprunt and Domenico Montanaro contributed to this report.