Ted Cruz stole the show, and then Donald Trump stole it right back.
The long, divisive primary of 2016 played out in one final, spectacular episode on live television Wednesday night on the floor of the Republican National Convention.
Here are seven takeaways from the penultimate night in Cleveland — setting up a final note of drama when Trump takes the stage:
Cruz’s 2020 gamble
Ted Cruz placed a bet Wednesday night that could define his political life.
It was a remarkable scene: The Texas senator took the stage and congratulated Trump for winning the Republican nomination. But he didn’t endorse Trump. And as his speech went on, the crowd noticed it — and was not happy.
The tipping point: He told convention-goers to “vote your conscience” in November.
Trump’s allies on the convention floor went into a frenzy, booing so loudly that they drowned out the end of Cruz’s speech. It made for one of the most memorable, made-for-TV moments in modern political convention history — with both Cruz and Trump getting exactly what they wanted.
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Cruz knew he needed the boos from the crowd to remind everyone at home that he’s still anti-establishment — and Trump now controls the establishment. It was a huge gamble that Republicans will deeply regret nominating Trump. It was Cruz’s one and only shot to create a moment reminiscent of Ronald Reagan in 1976, when Reagan, who’d just lost a primary race to President Gerald Ford, delivered a convention speech that vaulted him to the presidency four years later.
And then, Trump’s counter: Near the end of Cruz’s speech, Trump arrived at the arena — knowing that television cameras would cut away from Cruz and focus on him, allowing for one final jab at the man he branded “Lyin’ Ted” during the primaries.
Cruz’s career will never be the same again. The convention floor briefly devolved into chaos following his remarks. Cruz’s wife, Heidi, was escorted off the floor as hecklers shouted “Goldman Sachs!” — a reminder of where she works. Minutes later, a delegate had to be restrained from physically attacking Cruz.
Sometimes gambles fail
Cruz knew he was making a long-term wager — but he might have lost some important friends in the process.
He was turned away from mega-donor Sheldon Adelson’s suite after the episode, three sources told CNN. Cruz’s Virginia campaign chairman, Richard Black, said he’s “doubtful I would do that again,” referring to his future support of the senator.
“In the end, each individual has a duty to the nation that transcends the duty to yourself, and that’s where I think he failed,” Black said.
Laura Ingraham rocks the GOP convention, presses for unity behind Trump
Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Michigan, called it a “mistake,” though he thought Trump shouldn’t have given Cruz a prime speaking slot without a guarantee of an endorsement.
Hillary Clinton won’t help Cruz escape turncoat accusations. She tweeted the phrase he’d uttered to set off boos — “Vote your conscience” — with a link to her website.
Trump goaded Cruz on Twitter after the speech, writing: “Wow, Ted Cruz got booed off the stage, didn’t honor the pledge! I saw his speech two hours early but let him speak anyway. No big deal!”
Jason Johnson, Cruz’s chief strategist for his 2016 campaign, tweeted that Trump had even more notice that the Texas senator wouldn’t be endorsing him. “Cruz told Trump directly two days ago,” he said.
Behind Trump at every wild turn Wednesday night was his family — with his four adult children sticking together through each challenge.
When the audio-visual system malfunctioned and the Jumbotrons due to show Eric Trump’s speech broke down, his brother Donald Trump Jr. was there to greet him with a low-five afterward.
But the real show of family force came as the crowd turned on Cruz.
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The Trump children largely ignored the early portions of the Texas senator’s remarks — remaining stoic, knowing what was to come.
Midway through, the four children shifted in their five chairs — leaving one open in the middle. It was for their father, who was set to enter the arena. Together, the five delivered Cruz a cold stare-down — riling up the crowd even more as boos drowned Cruz out.
Pence: The nicer Trump
After the chaos surrounding Cruz’s rebuke of the Republican ticket, there was no way Trump’s vice presidential nominee, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, was going to emerge as the night’s leading headline.
Still, Pence delivered a strong performance that thrilled the crowd and helped the nation get to know him.
Many heard a line Pence has often repeated — that he is “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order” — for the first time.
But the most telling phrase Pence used was an attack on Hillary Clinton, casting her as the “Secretary of Status Quo.”
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It was his Indiana Nice version of Trump’s “Crooked Hillary.” And it revealed what Pence — who is mild-mannered and reserved enough that the awkwardness of Trump air-kissing his cheek afterward was palpable — will deliver to Trump’s campaign.
The focus of the race will remain on Clinton and Trump. But the vice presidential nominee achieved one of the primary purposes of Trump selecting Pence: validating Trump with the party’s right wing.
“Donald Trump gets it — he’s the genuine article,” Pence said. “He’s a doer in a game usually reserved for talkers. … He doesn’t tip-toe around a thousand new rules of political correctness. He’s his own man, distinctly American.”
Trump’s party now
While Cruz acted out, Trump stole away the television cameras.
When Trump entered the arena, standing with his children and staring down Cruz, it triggered a flood of delegates bolting to the convention floor so quickly that the fire marshal had to temporarily close the floor.
It was standard fare for the Trump-loving convention.
They booed Cruz off the stage, broke out in their own chants about Clinton to “lock her up” and exploded the moment the real estate mogul took the stage to congratulate Pence.
Through it all, the Republican National Committee’s delegates made clear: This is Trump’s party now.
Trump won the primary by exciting independents who don’t typically participate in the nominating process. But the crowd at the convention is the definition of the Republican establishment, and that establishment has crowned Trump as their nominee.
It sets up a huge night Thursday, when Trump faces the challenge of sending the audience soaring while also reaching a TV audience that includes the women, Latinos and more who he’ll need to win in November.
Scott Walker: Call Laura Ingraham
Scott Walker had a prime speaking slot — but he was as flat as a day-old Sprite.
For years, Walker — who has won three straight gubernatorial elections in blue-leaning Wisconsin — has looked so good on paper: His story of beating back labor unions, sticking to conservative principles and winning in a swing state is the stuff nominees are made of.
But under the bright lights, Walker just can’t match Cruz’s skill, Trump’s showmanship or Pence’s talk-radio polish.
He might be trying too hard. Walker’s call-and-response try — “America deserves better” — didn’t do much to jazz up a jam-packed crowd that was already primed for a big moment.
Walker might call Laura Ingraham, the radio talker who had ginned up the crowd shortly before Walker took the stage, for advice. Ingraham took a page from Trump’s book, ripping the media assembled above the convention floor.
“To all my friends up there in the press, you all know why in your heart Donald Trump won the Republican nomination. You know it,” Ingraham said. “You know why he won it? Because he dared to call out the phonies, the frauds and the corruption that has gone unexposed and uncovered for too long.”
All eyes on Trump
So far, the Republican convention is memorable primarily for two things: the love and loyalty of Trump’s children, and the daily distractions. There was the Melania Trump plagiarism controversy, then the fallout over the campaign’s handling of the controversy, and then one final, bitter fight with Cruz.
Thursday, though, is Trump’s night.
The GOP nominee is set to deliver the most important speech of his life, with an enormous national audience watching closely. That the convention thus far has gone badly off-script only adds to the importance of the speech — and the pressure and opportunity Trump faces.
If he’s able to show any new dimensions, it could thrust Trump past all the week’s problems. But distractions or missteps would only serve to reinforce the chaos that has surrounded him all week in Cleveland.
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