CLEVELAND (AP) — In their opening faceoff at the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump’s campaign and party leaders seem poised to defeat GOP renegades trying to derail the billionaire’s presidential nomination. But it’s unclear they’ll prevail before the dispute flares into a potentially angry and embarrassing floor fight next week.
The two sides on Thursday began what could be a two-day faceoff at early meetings of the convention’s rules committee. That panel’s initial votes are expected to demonstrate how firmly Trump and GOP Chairman Reince Priebus control the convention, which meets in full next week.
On Wednesday, Priebus signaled that it’s time for the insurrectionists to rally behind Trump or be faced with a November victory by Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee.
“If we don’t stick together as a party and stop her, then the only alternative is to get comfortable with the phrase, ‘President Hillary Clinton,'” Priebus said as the 168-member Republican National Committee — the party’s leadership — gathered for the first time in their convention city.
Party leaders have been hoping to prevent their four-day gathering from evolving into a nationally televised rebellion. There’s been talk of some Trump foes walking out of the convention if they feel they’ve been treated unfairly, a spectacle top Republicans would love to avoid.
“Chains, whips, muzzles and tasers,” Steve Duprey, an RNC member from New Hampshire, joked about how top Republicans have tried to calm the uprising.
The anti-Trump forces say they’re readying rules proposals to “unbind” all 2,472 delegates and let them back whichever candidate they choose, not the one they were assigned to after their states’ primaries or caucuses. One leading plan by Kendal Unruh, a Colorado delegate, would let delegates abandon the candidate they’re supposed to support and instead vote their conscience.
No one expects Unruh’s proposal to win a majority on the 112-member convention rules committee, which is heavy with top party officials. But Unruh has said she expects to win support from at least 28 of them — which under party rules means her plan would be brought to the full convention next Monday for a vote.
If it is, it seems likely to lose. But Unruh and her allies can’t be completely dismissed because while most delegates are committed to backing Trump in the roll call for the nomination, current rules let every delegate vote however he or she wishes on other fights over rules, the platform and credentials.
“There hasn’t been a whole lot of conciliation going on,” Unruh said of the disagreement between the two sides.
In another tactic, the dissidents also plan to challenge the roll calls of state delegations when the nominee is chosen later in the week.
And while they’d like to win rules changes that specifically unbind delegates, they also insist the current rules already let them back any candidate — a reading that RNC general counsel John Ryder derided Wednesday as “idiosyncratic.”
One factor working against the Trump opponents is that objecting delegates must be recognized by the convention’s presiding officer. Party leaders eager to forestall opponents can at times exercise that power to their benefit by ignoring delegates trying to lodge objections.
Besides letting the delegates vote freely, there could be other fights as well. Proposals floating around include closing GOP primaries to independent voters, with whom Trump performed well, or making some changes that would not take effect until after this convention.
Also possible are efforts to change the party’s current practice of letting Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada have the initial nominating contests, with Nevada sometimes considered most vulnerable to losing that preferred status.
The rebellious delegates have seemed well-organized — and relentless — and party leaders have stepped up their activities to head them off.
Many delegates gathering in Cleveland report being barraged by hundreds of emails from both sides. Led by groups with names like Free the Delegates and Delegates Unbound, there has been a smattering of television ads plus telephone surveys, social media advertising and cajoling calls from officials.
Besides a growing “whip” vote-counting operation, one official said the Trump campaign has assigned sympathetic delegates to ride herd on specific rebels in an effort to communicate and keep tabs on them.