Mike Pence was the marquee name Wednesday at the Republican National Convention. But Ted Cruz stole the show.
The Texas senator, the last candidate to lose to Donald Trump in the GOP presidential primary, used his prime-time speaking slot not to endorse the nominee, but to lay out a methodical, ideological vision that sounded like the foundation for a potential Cruz candidacy in 2020.
“To those listening, please, don’t stay home in November,” Cruz said. “Stand, and speak, and vote your conscience, vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution.”
Thousands of Trump delegates assembled on the floor of Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena did not take it well. By the time Cruz concluded, the riled-up audience jeered and booed him off stage.
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It was astonishing political theater.
The night had been intended to celebrate Pence, the Indiana governor Trump selected as his running mate.
“You know, I’m new to this campaign, and honestly, I — I never thought I’d be standing here,” Pence said, pivoting to Trump. “He’s a man known for a large personality, a colorful style and lots of charisma — and so I guess he was just looking for some balance on the ticket.”
Wednesday was also Florida’s unofficial night in the spotlight.
A year ago, the state’s Republicans might have imagined their most prominent roles at the GOP’s presidential would go to former Gov. Jeb Bush or U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. They went instead to Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, who gave brief speeches.
Rubio made a blink-and-you-might-miss-it appearance, in a recorded video message that made some of the Floridians present a little wistful.
“I’m here for Marco Rubio,” confessed Alex Trujillo, a Miami-Dade County delegate and fervent Rubio supporter. “The truth is, I think they got it wrong. But I’m still going to support the Republican nominee.”
Rubio acknowledged the divisions within the party: “After a long and spirited primary, the time for fighting each other is over.”
He was followed by Cruz, who never strayed off a script presumably accepted by Trump’s camp. Cruz urged Americans to “vote your conscience,” a line associated with anti-Trump delegates who tried in vain to stop his nomination. During the primary, Trump insulted Cruz’s wife and accused his father of being involved in the Kennedy assassination.
Earlier Wednesday, Trump choppered into Cleveland’s Great Lakes Science Center with his children to meet up with Pence. Playing in the background was music from the Harrison Ford film “Air Force One.”
At the convention hall, Bondi and Scott delivered a one-two Florida punch.
Scott wore a wide smile but spoke of the horrific shooting last month at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando that left 49 people dead. Trump is the only candidate who can defeat terrorism, Scott said.
“How many more Orlandos, San Bernardinos or Fort Hoods will happen until President [Barack] Obama decides to be honest?” Scott asked. “I cried with the grieving moms and dads and brothers and sisters of the 49 people slaughtered by the ISIS-inspired terrorist. This war is real. It is here in America, and the next president must destroy this evil. Donald Trump is the man for that job.”
In hewing closely to Trump’s campaign pitch, however, Scott must have had to swallow hard because he uttered a line contradicting nearly every one of his pronouncements since he took office in January 2011: “Our economy is not growing,” Scott said. “Our jobs are going overseas.” Hardly a day has gone by that Scott hasn’t touted the growth and new jobs in Florida, the nation’s third-largest state.
Unlike most other speakers, Scott explicitly acknowledged some of Trump’s faults. “Perhaps he’s sometimes not polite,” he began. An Illinois delegate hollered: “He’s beautiful!”
Scott bashed Democrat Hillary Clinton — “She fails, she fails, she fails” — which brought chants of the convention’s most popular refrain, “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
His six-minute speech was carried live on CNN and MSNBC, but not on Fox News. It was a coveted turn on the national stage for a governor widely viewed as a likely candidate for the U.S. Senate in Florida in 2018. Many Florida delegates didn’t know when he was speaking, however; the program, apparently printed before Scott’s slot was confirmed, didn’t list him.
Bondi, the only woman who holds statewide office in Florida, is expected to play a high-profile role in Trump’s Florida campaign.
“I know Donald. And I’m proud to know Donald,” Bondi said. “He will appoint conservative justices who will defend, rather than rewrite, our Constitution.”
Bondi said Trump will secure America’s borders and roll back President Obama’s executive orders.
“Winning this election means reclaiming something to which I’ve dedicated my entire career: the rule of law,” said Bondi, a former Hillsborough assistant state attorney and two-term attorney general.
Of Clinton, Bondi ad-libbed: “Lock her up! I love that.”
Herald/Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report from Tallahassee.