Standing there on the floor of the Republican National Convention, you could feel the tension grow. At first, Ted Cruz had held the delegates’ rapt attention, but as his speech continued on, they began to grow restless.
Would the Texan throw in with Donald Trump, the man he had battled well into the primary process? After all, Marco Rubio, now running for Senate reelection, had just done the same, albeit in a tepid video presentation.
What, really would keep Cruz from embracing the GOP standard-bearer — save perhaps still bruised feelings over Trump’s suggestion that Cruz’s beloved father might have been involved with the Kennedy assassination.
But then, Ben Carson had endorsed Trump, despite the latter’s insidious primary-campaign comparison of Carson to a child molester.
As Cruz’s melodramatic address drew to a close, it became increasingly apparent that an endorsement wasn’t going to be forthcoming. Up two levels, in a seat across the convention hall from the speakers’ platform, an enraged female Trump supporter stood and pointed and yelled: “Say it, say it, say it.”
The New York delegation also started to agitate.
But Cruz wouldn’t utter the magic words they wanted to hear.
Instead, he urged people to vote their consciences, for the person they believed would uphold the Constitution. A crowd that had hung on his every word started to boo loudly, drowning out his last few sentences.
The Trump team quickly brought the Donald into the arena, creating a counter-stir as reporters on the floor surged his way.
A few minutes later, Newt Gingrich was at the podium, doing a lame attempt at damage control. The delegates may have misunderstood Cruz, he said. The Texas senator had urged people to support any candidate who would uphold the Constitution. That could only mean the Trump-Pence ticket. The GOP, he added, had to rise above its factions and elect Trump.
Certainly a consummation devoutly to be wished, at least by Trump supporters like Gingrich.
But not by Cruz, who obviously wants to run for president again, and has spent his time here setting up a future campaign. Or Ohio Governor John Kasich, who hasn’t endorsed Trump, didn’t speak at the convention, and is eyeing another presidential campaign himself. Nor Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee. Or Jeb Bush, the best known, and most mocked, of Trump’s defeated primary rivals.
And perhaps not other Republican panjandrums. As the Cruz episode unfolded, I was standing next to the former South Carolina governor and now US Representative Mark Sanford.
Was he aboard with Trump, I asked?
“I’m getting there,” said Sanford, then offered this caveat: “For someone who has spent his entire political life worrying about debt and deficits, when someone says he is not going to touch entitlements, it gets tricky.”
Just then, there appeared Nick Stepovich, a Cruz supporter from Alaska who had repeatedly circled the convention floor, holding one sign that read “Cruz delegate for Trump” and another that read “Let’s Trump Hillary.”
He was thoroughly disgusted by Cruz.
“He only had to say three words: ‘I support Donald Trump,’ ” fumed Stepovich. “It takes a lot of guts to stand here before the nation and act like a baby.”
A few minutes before, I had been talking to Brenda High, from Pasco, Washington, a Cruz delegate who is distinctly ambivalent about Trump. She is an anti-bullying activist who writes and speaks on that subject.
“That’s probably the reason I have a hard time with Trump,” she said. “I see him as a bully.” She was also bitter about the RNC’s Monday effort to quash an effort to let the delegates vote their conscience.
Anger over that, she said, was why so many delegates were sitting on their hands rather than cheering the various speakers.
“There are a lot of people in our delegation who won’t vote for Trump,” she told me.
So would she?
Grudgingly, she said, driven to it by her intense dislike of Hillary Clinton.
But she is also rethinking her allegiance to the GOP.
“There are a lot of people like me who may leave the party after the election,” she said.
All in all, it was a night that left one thinking that, as this convention progresses, unity isn’t getting closer, but rather receding like a mirage into the distance.