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Cleveland: for insiders, it was a galvanizing week

CLEVELAND — Outside the Quicken Loans Arena, political observers spent much of last week criticizing the Republican National Convention here. Too many B-list celebrities, they said, too many awkwardly timed speeches that ran too long, including that of nominee Donald Trump. Not to mention controversies over a non-endorsement speech by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and plagiarism in a speech by Mr. Trump’s wife.

But things looked very different from inside the arena, where delegate Justin DePlato was posted as part of the Pennsylvania delegation during the week.

“You have to give Trump credit,” Mr. DePlato Thursday night said as delegates danced and the G.E. Smith Band played nearby. “Conventions are usually stodgy. I don’t think the RNC would have figured out how to make a crowd this excited.”

For many Pennsylvanians here, the convention  added to the Trump legend, and their enthusiasm for furthering it. Did prominent Republicans like the Bush family and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose state hosted the event, sit out the convention? That just proved Mr. Trump’s anti-establishment credentials.

“This election is so different,” said Rob Gleason, chair of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party. While the Bushes in particular “should be ashamed of themselves” for not backing the nominee, “The people are tired of the ruling elite running everything."

As for Mr. Cruz, said delegate Marc Scaringi, “He has unified the party” — in hating Ted Cruz.

“Trump always does things his own way,” said Mr. Scaringi. “Bucking the system has been the key to his success.”

While Mr. Trump’s rhetoric “could be toned down a bit, I think people like it,” said Adams County alternate delegate Betsy Hower. “To be honest, I think his ego is big enough that he isn’t going to let himself fail.”

Not everyone was impressed.

"If you liked Trump's style, the convention enhanced that, and if you didn't, the convention enhanced that as well," said Christopher Nicholas, a Pennsylvania Republican political consultant who has been wary of Mr. Trump's candidacy.

Whatever the passion on the floor, he said, Republican holdouts were unlikely to be moved. "I talked to a friend — more conservative than me — on Thursday, and he said, 'I can't watch this: It's like seeing a good friend die.'"

But Ms. Hower said that the choice was clear for her and many Republicans: “There is no comparison between Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump. She’s a liar. So what would she do if she’s president?”

At a convention that introduced the chant “lock her up” to politics, that question sometimes seemed to overshadow Mr. Trump’s own agenda. For four nights, speakers portrayed America as a country tepidly supported by friends and laughed at by enemies, a nation threatened by terrorists abroad and backstabbing Democrats at home.

Those sentiments were capped by Mr. Trump’s own address, which Christopher Borick characterized as “a very angry speech.”

“Presidential speeches are typically aimed at the entire electorate,” said Mr. Borick, a pollster who teaches political science at Muhlenberg College. “But this wasn't a speech intended to reach out to broader constituencies.”

Mr. Nicholas, the consultant, found the speech "overly authoritarian," but noted Mr. Trump waved aside the “lock her up” chants.

"Even Trump thought that went too far," he said.

David Urban, a senior adviser to Mr. Trump’s Pennsylvania effort, said it wasn’t all negative. Mr. Trump, he said, “offers all voters the same thing: hope. They aren’t going to be left behind. He’s there to fight for them.”

There were signs of that outreach during the convention, whose speakers included African-American ministers and prayers offered by representatives of various denominations. Mr. Trump’s speech nodded to gay voters, following a prime-time address by tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who is gay. But the Republican platform is notably unfriendly to the LGBT community. It is against same-sex marriage, calls for states’ right in determining which bathrooms transgender people may use and defends businesses that would deny service to gay customers.

Pennsylvania is key to Mr. Trump’s prospects, a fact impressed upon delegates both by their prominent location on the convention floor — right up against the stage, to the left of the podium — and by a series of high-profile visitors delegation breakfasts. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Vice-Presidential nominee Mike Pence, and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions all urged delegates to “make Pennsylvania red again,” as Mr. Pence put it on Thursday.

And while no Republican presidential candidate has won Pennsylvania since 1988, polls show a neck-and-neck race this year. “Trump can do something no Republican has done in a long time and win the state,” said Mr. Borick. “I think it's gonna be close.”

Chris Potter: cpotter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533.