CHARLOTTE, N.C. (NewsNation) — President Donald Trump used a surprise opening-day appearance at his party’s scaled-down national convention to question the integrity of the fall election, even as his aides promised a more uplifting message once the evening program shifted back to Washington, D.C. for prime time.
Trump’s campaign hoped to broaden his appeal beyond his hard-core base by featuring the next generation of party stars including two Republicans of color, Rep. Tim Scott and former U.N. .Ambassador Nikki Haley, Yet any sense of optimism was largely overshadowed by most speakers’ dire warnings that Democrat Joe Biden would destroy America, allowing communities to be overrun by violence.
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida likened the prospect of Democrat Joe Biden’s election to a horror movie.
“They’ll disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door,” Gaetz declared.
Trump, who was not scheduled to deliver his keynote convention address until later in the week, made multiple public appearances throughout the first day of the four-day convention.
“The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election,” Trump told hundreds of Republican delegates gathered in North Carolina, raising anew his concerns about Americans’ expected reliance on mail voting during the pandemic. Experts say mail voting has proven remarkably secure.
The GOP convention marks a crucial moment for Trump, a first-term Republican president tasked with reshaping a campaign.
The lineup also featured Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple arrested after pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters marching past their home.
The program also included a collection of average Americans praising Trump’s leadership: a public school teacher from California, a small business owner from Montana and a nurse practitioner from Virginia.
One of several African Americans on the schedule, former football star Herschel Walker, defended the president against those who call him a racist.
“It hurts my soul to hear the terrible names that people call Donald,” Walker said in remarks. “The worst one is ‘racist.’ I take it as a personal insult that people would think I would have a 37-year friendship with a racist.”
Some of the planned remarks for the evening program were prerecorded, while others were to be delivered live from a Washington auditorium.
The fact that the Republicans gathered at all stood in contrast to the Democrats, who held an all-virtual convention last week. The Democratic programming included a roll call video montage featuring diverse officials from across the nation. The Republicans spoke from the ballroom in Charlotte and were overwhelmingly white.
Trump said he had made the trip to North Carolina to contrast himself with his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, who never traveled to Wisconsin, the state where the Democratic convention was originally supposed to be held.
The president barely addressed the coronavirus pandemic on Monday, but its impact was evident at the Charlotte Convention Center, where just 336 delegates gathered instead of the thousands once expected to converge on this city for a week-long extravaganza. Attendees sat at well-spaced tables at first and masks were mandatory, though many were seen flouting the regulation.
Trump also criticized the state’s Democratic governor for restrictions put in place to try to prevent the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 175,000 people in the country and infected millions. The president accused Gov. Roy Cooper of “being in a total shutdown mode,” and claimed the restrictions were aimed at trying to hurt his campaign.
Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris said she had “shared concern about the lack of mask wearing and social distancing in the room” with RNC staff and had “been assured that they are working hard to address these issues.”
Republicans will spend the week trying to convince the American people that the president deserves a second term. Aides want the convention to recast the story of Trump’s presidency and present the election as a choice between his vision for America’s future and the one presented by Biden.
“Over the next four days, President Trump and Republicans are going to talk about all we have achieved the past four years, and cast an aspirational, forward-looking vision about what we can achieve in the next four,” said GOP Chair Ronna McDaniel.
For both sides, it’s an unconventional year.
The parties’ election year gatherings are typically massive events, drawing thousands of delegates, party leaders, donors, journalists and political junkies for a week of speeches, parties and after-parties that inject hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy and deliver a multiday infomercial for the nominee.
Besides formally awarding Trump the Republican nomination, delegates gathered in North Carolina also approved a handful of new resolutions, including one to keep Columbus Day as a federal holiday and one that labels the Southern Poverty Law Center, which catalogs the country’s hate groups, as a “radical organization.” Another bemoans “cancel culture,” warning that it “has grown into erasing of history, encouraging lawlessness, muting citizens and violating free exchange of ideas, thoughts, and speech.”
But the delegates did not vote on a new 2020 platform, which details the party’s positions on key issues, after a unanimous vote to forgo one this year.
While he campaigned aggressively across the country throughout last week’s Democratic convention, Biden made no public appearance on Monday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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