Donald Trump had a tough job in Colorado on Friday. With Sarah Palin as his opening act, he needed to woo a gathering of deeply conservative voters in this critical swing state and make nice after offending the entire political establishment during the primary season.
He also needed to appeal to the broader general election audience as the political conventions near – and sound like a man who could actually be president.
And he had to accomplish it all during his first campaign visit to the Centennial State – ever – in a cavernous ballroom where empty seats were in the obvious majority.
“This is a tremendous crowd,” he told the Western Conservative Summit, which boasted 4,000 eager attendees, most of whom did not show up to hear the presumptive Republican nominee for president, who was nearly an hour late for his morning keynote speech.
Palin, who was introduced as a “conservative political icon”, stepped in to fill the empty time and hit all the Tea Party high notes before Trump arrived on stage.
She lamented the “Swiss cheese borders” and decried “those who don’t yearn for America’s freedoms … but instead yearn for child brides and female mutilation and killing all gays and nonbelievers and refusing assimilation”.
She slammed what she called the “GOP wing of the good old boys’ club”, those establishment Republicans who will not support Trump and have worked to find another option to face Hillary Clinton. They feel threatened, she said, by the passionate men and women who stand behind the billionaire.
“I call them Republicans against Trump, or RAT for short,” Palin said, as the audience applauded. “They want to take their [Denver] Nuggets ball and stay home instead of vote, because their guy didn’t win this time around? I shouldn’t call them thumb-suckers. They’re not all bad. I’m kidding. They are.”
Just how much Palin helps a Republican nominee struggling to broaden his reach is up for debate.
Trump lauded the 2008 vice-presidential candidate – but he waited until nearly 10 minutes into a 50-minute speech. Before he got to Palin, he thanked former rival Ben Carson, Jerry Falwell Jr, Ralph Reed, and the National Rifle Association.
“When people think of high-mindedness and dignity, the face of Sarah Palin does not appear in the mind’s eye,” said John J Pitney Jr, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “The only thing Sarah Palin can do for him is rally the Republican base. But at this point in the campaign, he needs to move beyond that base, and she is not helpful.”
Before thanking Palin, Trump also had a long riff about his relationship with teleprompters, which he said last year should be banned during presidential elections, but which he has begun using more often as a way to stay on script.
He didn’t use one Friday morning, although they were present on stage at the Colorado Convention Center.
“I’m starting to love those teleprompters,” Trump joked. “You know, it’s interesting, it’s much easier when you have a teleprompter, and I’m getting great reviews with the teleprompters. But when you stand up and just go at it, it’s much more exciting.”
Trump also acknowledged his high-profile social media spat with Colorado’s Republican senator Cory Gardner, who has not endorsed him, and his primary season outburst in which he told the entire state that its political system is broken.
Colorado, he said, “taught me a lot about politics. I learned a lot. Because polls came out that I was gonna win Colorado and doing really well in Colorado, and I was looking forward to it. And then all of a sudden I didn’t get the delegates. I said, ‘What happened to the vote?’, remember? I started to learn. I’m a quick learner.”
By the time the Colorado Republican convention ended on 9 April, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas had swept all 34 of the state’s available delegates in a rare skunking of the real estate magnate. A day later, a stunned Trump tweeted that he was just aghast about the lack of democracy in Colorado.
“How is it possible,” Trump fumed, “that the people of the great state of Colorado never got to vote in the Republican primary? Great anger – totally unfair!”
Followed moments later by: “The people of Colorado had their vote taken away from them by the phony politicians. Biggest story in politics. This will not be allowed!”
Actually, it was.
Colorado is a caucus state, and the GOP there chooses its 37 delegates in a painstaking, multi-part process. Each of the state’s seven congressional districts voted for three delegates at party meetings in March. An additional 13 delegates were selected at the April convention. The final three slots go to top state party officials.
Gardner responded to what he described as Trump’s social media “temper tantrum” with a series of nine taunting tweets.
He asked the man who is now the presumptive Republican nominee for president how he could possibly protect Israel, balance the federal budget, and handle Russian president Vladimir Putin if he can’t navigate Colorado politics?
Paulo Sibaja, a small business owner and political consultant, who was in the crowd, acknowledged that Trump is “trying to be a sharper candidate” but said he had a lot of work ahead of him, to attract moderates, bring the important Hispanic vote into the fold and overcome this Colorado faux pas.
“To me it is extremely disrespectful for anyone to come into a state and begin to tell those of us who have dedicated a big part of our lives to it that we’re wrong,” said Sibaja, who has served as a Hispanic advisory board member for the Colorado Republican party.
“We’re very independent,” Sibaja said. “Don’t tell us how to run our state. Don’t make fun of our state.”