CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Bourbon flowed, a jazz band played, and pink and violet lights bathed the vaulted stone ceilings at a party thrown by a liquor producers’ lobby group on Monday for attendees of the Republican National Convention.
Seven blocks away in Cleveland, in the arena where Donald Trump was to officially accept his party’s nod for the White House, a fight boiled over between Trump supporters and foes about the rules concerning his nomination. Delegates shouted at each other. The chairman tasked with keeping order briefly abandoned the podium. Microphones went dead.
Typically, the Republican convention that takes place every four years is a tale of two conventions. At the official one, activists from all 50 states come to hear testimonials about their party’s presidential nominee and watch the candidate’s official coronation.
At the other, Republicans in the professional class - strategists, lobbyists, pollsters, lawmakers - rub elbows at cocktail hours and concerts, woo donors at power breakfasts and toss back booze at night, all the while conducting informal business, swapping pledges of support and plans for the future.
This year, the disconnect between the two conventions seemed more pronounced, several lobbyists and activists said, and some parties were more subdued. The Distilled Spirits Council’s soiree, normally a jam-packed affair, drew a more modest crowd this year, according to some Republicans who have attended it at past conventions.
The council’s senior vice president, Frank Coleman, pooh-poohed the idea that attendance was down. “It was a very large venue,” he said, saying that the party still attracted about 700 people over the course of the evening.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said there was a muted tone at some Cleveland gatherings, which he attributed to the unique relationship between Trump and his party’s establishment.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate and a former Massachusetts governor, and Senator John McCain, the party’s 2008 nominee, hailed from the establishment and had extensive ties with businesspeople and strategists who are convention regulars.
By contrast, Trump, a real estate developer and former reality TV star who has never held elective office, clinched the Republican nomination by touting his outsider status.
“You have a non-politician, a Hollywood entertainer trying to show Americans he’s fit for office, and you have Republicans who are used to coming to these things for years,” Bonjean said. The two groups, he said, weren’t mixing so smoothly.
SEEKING CORPORATE DONORS
Inside the convention arena on Thursday evening, Trump fans cheered, danced to a band and roared support for a succession of speakers as they awaited the event’s finale - Trump’s speech formally accepting the nomination. But in bars and parties nearby, there was hardly any clapping and cheering as those same scenes flashed across televisions.
Some Republicans flew in to Cleveland for only for a day or two, to host events for lawmakers and clients, then left before Trump’s Thursday night speech.
One lobbyist for a large industrial conglomerate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had a mission in Cleveland that had little to do with Trump: mingling with congressional Republicans and showing support for their re-election efforts.
The informal convention did still take place, although more subdued. One strategist skipped a night of speeches and pageantry to gamble at a nearby casino. He won $8,000. A group of three made quick glances at a TV screen as Trump’s wife, Melania, spoke on Monday night, checking on her progress between turns at a bar with bowling lanes that had been converted to a private lounge.
But there were constant reminders that Cleveland was different.
As an outsider, Trump lacks the kind of donor network that is typical of major party candidates and only recently has begun to ramp up his fundraising.
Before the convention started, companies that habitually donate to the RNC withheld pledges or withdrew them, leading organizers to ask casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a generous party benefactor, for an urgent donation.
A strategist who asked for help to raise a last-minute $15,000 to sponsor food and drinks at a country music concert for delegates could not find any corporate donors willing to pony up. Eight of the 12 people he contacted said they were skipping the convention entirely.
On Tuesday, Trump passed up a chance to forge closer ties with more big donors when he failed to appear at a breakfast held on the field of the new football stadium in town, according to a report in Time magazine.
Later that day, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie met with donors to brief them on plans for a team that would ease Trump into office if he wins the Nov. 8 election against Democrat Hillary Clinton. Such gatherings often attract billionaires and other moneyed luminaries.
A man in charge of fundraising surveyed attendees in the modestly sized conference room and declared, “I think I see about $600,000 in here.”
Reporting by Emily Flitter; Editing by Caren Bohan and Leslie Adler
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