CLEVELAND -- Donald Trump has promised America a riveting extravaganza in Cleveland -- an unconventional nominating convention that will defy typically over-scripted tradition.
But as details of his plans have belatedly emerged, what appears to be taking shape is an event locked into the usual limits of conventional-hall staging, prime-time speaking slots, and Republican Party floor business. If anything, the Republican Party and its hosts in Cleveland are striving mightily to project a sense of normalcy, to assure the faithful that a successful convention is in the works.
Plans for Trump biography rollout? Check. High-profile roles for Trump family? Check. Political friends and celebrities ready to praise Trump? Check.
To be sure, there is an undercurrent of unease in Cleveland over the potential for embarrassment, dissent, and chaos.
But the only out-of-the-ordinary elements visible so far are the divisive candidate himself -- who continued to show a disregard for political norms this week by defending a tweet widely regarded as anti-Semitic -- and things outside of his control, like scheming by some Republicans to upend his nomination.
Less than two weeks before its opening, organizers were unable to explain what would be new and exciting. The cast of likely speakers includes a predictable lineup of GOP politicos: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz (who said after meeting with Trump Thursday that he would speak but had not agreed to endorse).
Key GOP leaders, including former President George W. Bush, former Florida Jeb Bush, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, as well as some senators locked in close re-election races like New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, have said they would stay far away from Cleveland.
“It’s a work in progress. They’re working on it,” said Bill Harris, senior consultant to the RNC who has been involved in the planning and management of every convention since 1984. During a brief interview this week from one of the skyboxes overlooking the convention floor, Harris would not divulge any programming details, nor predict how a Trump convention could differ from years past.
“Mr. Trump has proven very successful at being an unconventional candidate,” Harris said. “He certainly knows how to command attention and use the media to get his point across.”
Some House members who met behind closed doors with Trump Thursday on Capitol Hill said Trump appeared more presidential in private and hoped he could project that from the big stage in Cleveland.
“That’s why the convention is going to be very important. He’s going to own that. That’s his convention,” said Representative Peter King, a New York Republican who at times has been skeptical of Trump. “It’s going to be him, his family, his friends – it’s going to be Donald Trump. That’s where he has the opportunity to show who he is.”
In Cleveland, a tour of Quicken Loans Arena revealed this week that the stage for the July 18 to 21 convention is nearly built -- white, curved, with wide sets of stairs flanking the center -- not too straight, with just enough flair, reportedly per The Donald’s specifications. Two giant screens -- made up of 636 LED panels -- have been erected.
The reality TV star has promised to jazz up the normally staid quadrennial rite by injecting some “showbiz” into the convention. For months now, Trump has bragged that his nominating party would be “monumentally magnificent,” “brilliantly staged,” not “boring.”
“You have a lot of people hoping it’s not going to be the same-old, same-old convention because voters didn’t pick the same old candidate,” said Anne Hathaway, former chief of staff at the Republican National Committee and program director of the 2012 Tampa convention who is a delegate this year.
With Trump’s connections in the entertainment, business and beauty pageant industries, his campaign has the “opportunity to package the convention differently than we have ever done before” to reflect his unique candidacy, Hathaway said. “Maybe it’s not that they are not organized. Maybe they want to maximize the element of surprise in order to get viewers to tune in.”
Alas, to the disappointment of perhaps millions of viewers, Trump himself will be featured only on the final night of the convention, per tradition -- not all four nights as he previously suggested. “I don’t want people to think I’m grandstanding -- which I’m not,” Trump told the New York Times recently.
Speculation about celebrity speakers has included Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight (whose endorsement helped propel Trump to victory in the Indiana primary) and boxing promoter Don King (an ardent Trump fan who lives in Cleveland).
Three weeks out from the 2012 convention, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus had already announced a slate of a dozen headline speakers, which included Ohio Governor John Kasich, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, the country’s first female Hispanic governor who Trump recently ridiculed, and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, the first African-American woman to hold the position.
“I would have shown a little leg by now,” said Russ Schriefer, a top Romney strategist who ran his Tampa convention operation but is not involved in the Cleveland convention. Even without knowing Trump’s speaking lineup, Schriefer said he is certain the American public will tune in.
“People who like Trump want to watch him, and people who don’t like him want to watch him,” Schriefer said. “I don’t know if his convention will draw votes but he will certainly draw eyeballs.”
The ending, too, will be predictable. On the fourth and final night, after Trump speaks, 125,000 red, white and blue balloons will drift down from the rafters. Just as they did four years ago.