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Politics & Government

GOP Convention To Address Protecting The U.S.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, the shootings came one day before the Republican convention, scheduled to begin here in Cleveland today. On Sunday, we wandered the streets around the arena, including a designated protest route.

We're walking past a wall of bicycle cops.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Go. Get moving, guys.

INSKEEP: So there's a Black Lives Matter sign as we approach these protesters. This would all be very ordinary were it not for the events in Baton Rouge this weekend. It's news of those events that puts your heart up in your throat a little bit.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: They can't stop the revolution.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: They can't stop the revolution.

INSKEEP: Closer to the arena, the mood was different. Clevelanders were buying souvenirs and simply looking around at all the television crews that were setting up and setting up their sets around the arena. Keith Benjamin (ph) was buying a Donald Trump bobblehead.

KEITH BENJAMIN: I think it's great for America in terms of being able to see the public process, to see the convention process, how it works and how we select our president.

INSKEEP: How do you feel about the vibe here?

BENJAMIN: It's electric. It's electric today seeing all the people here coming in from states all over and people from all over the country. I talked to two people last night who had flown in from Australia to be here for this weekend.

INSKEEP: Today, thousands of delegates gather to nominate Donald Trump and also to deliver messages in prime time as they will the next several nights. NPR campaign reporter Scott Detrow is in our studios here at WCPN here in Cleveland, a short distance from the arena. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what is the Trump campaign mean to say to the nation tonight?

DETROW: The theme for tonight is Make America Safe Again. For a while now, Donald Trump has been referring to his campaign as the law and order campaign. And that's going to be the thread tonight. So speakers are expected to talk about everything from the recent attacks we've been seeing in places like Dallas and Orlando to more broadly talking about immigration. Of course, Trump has been very hardline when it comes to immigrants in the country illegally.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

DETROW: We'll also be hearing from people who were at Benghazi during the 2012 attacks and from family members of those killed in Benghazi.

INSKEEP: Of course, Republicans who worked to link those attacks or the response to them to Hillary Clinton who was secretary of state at the time. Now, there's not a lot of politicians on the schedule.

DETROW: That's right. I mean, there are some. We'll be hearing from Tom Cotton, Arkansas senator who's kind of established himself as a hawkish Republican. But we also have speakers like - like, we'll be hearing from people from the "Duck Dynasty" TV show and from Scott Baio from "Happy Days," yeah.

INSKEEP: Scott Baio, yeah.

DETROW: So it's an interesting mix. And one speaker that a lot of people are interested to hear what she has to say is Melania Trump, Donald Trump's wife. The role typically played by the spouse in the presidential campaign has been more filled by his children. So she'll be an interesting speech tonight.

DETROW: Big national moment for Melania Trump and we'll be covering it throughout the week. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is also at this convention.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: There is so much that is unprecedented about the GOP convention this year, the nominee for starters. Trump has never served in public office, and he's at odds with the ideological underpinnings of his party in so many ways. What voters will see on the stage in Cleveland will also be different. Trump's wife and adult children are expected to have big roles. Kellyanne Conway is a senior adviser on the Trump campaign.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: And that really fits with his very unconventional historic candidacy in that he is tapping people from all walks of life in different industries, some folks who are in politics and elected office and many folks who are not, just like him.

LIASSON: Trump has some unique advantages this week, says Republican strategist Kristen Soltis Anderson. If his media coverage so far is any indication, he could have a spotlight bigger than any past presidential candidate.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON: He is going to have incredible ratings on this convention because so many people are looking at it just wondering what on earth is going to happen. How different is this going to be from your traditional, somewhat staid, somewhat boring political convention? The odds are that this is going to be quite a spectacle.

LIASSON: The current schedule for Cleveland seems aimed squarely at the base of the party, with speeches devoted to immigration and Benghazi, all designed to reinforce Republicans' loathing of Hillary Clinton. But Anderson says Trump also needs to tell voters what he'd do to address their concerns about jobs, inequality, the sense that Americans can't get ahead anymore.

ANDERSON: Can he focus on that, or will he be drawn into petty squabbles that are not in line with what Americans care about? His real challenge now is to make sure that he's using that immense power to advance his agenda and bring in voters outside of the Republican primary battles that he's been fighting so far.

LIASSON: Donald Trump not only has to bring in voters outside the Republican primaries. He has work to do inside the Republican tent. Though his nomination is now assured, there's something else unprecedented about the Cleveland convention, the number of delegates who say they're still not ready to enthusiastically support the nominee. They worry about the ways Trump is reordering the DNA of the Republican Party. Ryan Call is the former chair of the Colorado state GOP. He'll be an unpledged alternate delegate at the convention, and he's still not sure who he'll vote for.

RYAN CALL: I'm telling you that I'm prepared to be persuaded, but I'm not persuaded yet. I have never been in this position before heading into a Republican National Convention where the presumptive nominee has yet to close the deal with me.

LIASSON: Then there's the large number of prominent Republicans who've decided not to come to Cleveland at all, including both living former Republican presidents. Ohio's governor and former presidential candidate John Kasich says he'll be in town but not at the arena. Matt Borges is the Ohio Republican state party chair. He wants the convention to help Trump carry Ohio this fall.

MATT BORGES: The only thing standing between us and a Republican in the White House is ourselves. Look, my job is to help our nominee carry Ohio. In Ohio, we have a million new registered Republicans. I understand this is a race that we absolutely should win. The number one word that Ohioans associate with Hillary Clinton is liar.

LIASSON: You can hear the frustration because Republicans feel this election is theirs to lose. Their opponent is a historically weak candidate trying to do something that's historically very hard, win a third term for her party. Republicans have never won the White House without Ohio. To do that, Matt Borges says he needs some help from Trump. He wants Trump to use the week in Cleveland to remind voters of the things the GOP has always been about - conservative social values, freedom, prosperity and opportunity. Is Borges confident Trump can do that?

BORGES: He's going to have to. If he doesn't, then it could be a long next couple of months for us.

LIASSON: Despite the lack of enthusiasm in his party and his own sky-high unfavorability ratings, polls show a very, very close race. And conventions usually give candidates a boost. Kellyanne Conway.

CONWAY: A Republican convention in Cleveland will be a week of reminding people that this election is a change election - is a choice election. But it really is fundamentally a referendum on Hillary Clinton. She's tried to make it at an election about, quote, "temperament and qualifications." And his greatest attributes are strong leadership. And so it all comes down to - what do the voters, what do they elevate as the most important attribute to them? Is it temperament, or is it strong leadership?

LIASSON: A successful convention can help Trump provide an answer to that question.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. She's part of the NPR News team here at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.