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Mishaps overshadow message at the Republican National Convention

BY   July 19, 2016 at 12:05 PM EDT
Delegates stand during the benediction at the close of the first day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 18, 2016. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni - RTSIMJB

Delegates stand during the benediction at the close of the first day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 18, 2016. Photo by Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

CLEVELAND — The Trump campaign needs a big night on Tuesday after its problem-plagued first day at the Republican National Convention.

As the reality of Monday’s problems set in, media coverage of the convention quickly focused on the evening’s many mishaps, threatening to overshadow the RNC’s effort to paint Donald Trump as a competent law-and-order leader.

A comeback is still possible, assuming the rest of the convention is somehow significantly better than the lackluster program on Monday. But if things don’t improve, Cleveland 2016 is in danger of becoming one of the most poorly executed presidential nominating conventions in recent U.S. history.

If things don’t improve, Cleveland 2016 is in danger of becoming one of the most poorly executed presidential nominating conventions in recent U.S. history.

Trump’s supporters will have a second chance on Tuesday evening. Several veteran politicians are scheduled to speak, such as Paul Ryan and Chris Christie, which could help the convention regain a sense of calm.

The debate over party unity could also distract the press from focusing on Monday’s speech from Trump’s wife, Melania Trump, which was suspiciously similar to a section of Michelle Obama’s address to the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

The plagiarism scandal was the most prominent issue on Monday, but it wasn’t the only sign that the Trump campaign didn’t spend enough time preparing for Cleveland. (Some of the speakers weren’t hard booked until as recently as last week, for example.) Here’s a shortlist of additional missteps:

Falling behind schedule

Successful political conventions hinge on execution. Staying on schedule is a proxy for proving that a candidate can govern effectively. But last night, the RNC failed to keep the trains running on time. The program ended roughly 30 minutes after it was supposed to, thanks to several speakers who breezed past their allotted times.

READ MORE: READ MORE: Is the RNC Trump’s last big chance to recast himself?

To be fair, these are big, complex productions that are tough to pull off without a hitch. This year’s RNC cost $70 million, and involves countless moving parts that need to be coordinated all at once. Every convention runs into some issues. Nevertheless, Monday didn’t bode well for the rest of the convention here in Cleveland.

Phoning it in

Patricia Smith’s speech was supposed to be one of the highlights of the first night. Smith, whose son Sean Smith was killed in the Benghazi attack, delivered a passionate diatribe against Hillary Clinton, but her speech was overshadowed by Trump.

Inexplicably, Trump called into a Fox News show as Smith was speaking from the podium. Trump used the interview to criticize his former primary rival and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who refused to attend the convention. It was a bizarre moment that underscored Trump’s struggle to stay on message, and his propensity for focusing attention on himself and his personal beefs with other people.

Early exit

Two of the Republican Party’s handpicked rising stars — Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst and Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana — were forced to speak to a near-empty convention hall.

Melania Trump’s speech (more on that later) was the most highly anticipated speech of the night. If the program had ended with her — as it did when Michelle Obama spoke on the first night of the ‘08 DNC — the night would have ended on a high note. After Melania Trump’s speech, most of the delegates on the floor headed back to their hotels, satisfied that they had seen the best part of the show.

The only problem? The RNC scheduled more speakers after Melania Trump. The result: two of the Republican Party’s handpicked rising stars — Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst and Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana — were forced to speak to a near-empty convention hall. It made for a very, very awkward visual, to say the least.

Where were the signs?

The few people who stayed behind on the floor to watch Ernst and Zinke speak were also left empty-handed. Typically, the campaign or party prints up thousands of signs with the names of the biggest speakers, and then hands them out to delegates on the floor.

But last night there was a noticeable lack of signs on the floor, which only reinforced the sense that there was a lack of enthusiasm inside the arena. It was a classic rookie mistake. Either no one knew that the signs were needed, or no one was able to get them ready in time.

Botched cover-up

It was bad enough that Melania Trump’s speech included two paragraphs that were nearly identical to a section of Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC address. But the campaign’s response made things even worse — yet another in a pattern of erratic reactions by the campaign in moments of crisis.

Melania Trump’s speech included two paragraphs that were nearly identical to a section of Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC address.

First, the campaign issued a statement from a senior spokesman after midnight that ignored the plagiarism angle entirely. Then, hours later, Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort went on television to try to put out the fire, insisting that Melania Trump’s speech wasn’t plagiarized at all.

Perhaps most embarrassing, both the initial statement and Manafort’s comments made clear that the speech was written by a team of writers, undermining Melania Trump’s claim in an interview on Monday that she had written the speech with very little help from others. The conflicting accounts ensured that the story will live on, and put even more pressure on tonight’s speakers to turn things around.

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