CLEVELAND (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Ted Cruz refused to endorse Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the party’s convention on Wednesday, drawing angry jeers from Trump supporters and shattering the facade of party unity that has been carefully built up in Cleveland this week.
Anti-Trump Republican delegate Ken Cuccinelli told Reuters he escorted Cruz’s wife, Heidi, off the floor of the Republican National Convention out of concern for her safety following her husband’s speech.
For the third day in a row, what was supposed to be a carefully scripted show of unity was thrown into turmoil by unexpected events that have raised questions about whether the party can unite around Trump to defeat the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in the Nov. 8 election.
Cruz, who came in a distant second to Trump in the race for the Republican nomination, stopped short of endorsing Trump after a bitter and personal campaign and mentioned him only once, drawing boos and repeated chants of “We want Trump.”
Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general, said: “When the speech ended, there was an ugly crowd behind us.” A witness said one person shouted: “Goldman Sachs” at Heidi Cruz in reference to her employment at the investment bank.
Cruz began his speech saying: “I want to congratulate Donald Trump on winning the nomination last night.”
Later in the speech, he urged: “Please, don’t stay home in November. Stand, and speak, and vote your conscience, vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution.”
Some critics saw the appeal for people to vote their conscience as a vote of no-confidence in Trump. Republican strategist Eric Fehrnstrom, who is not affiliated with any campaign, tweeted: “‘Vote your conscience’ was the rallying cry of the Never Trump movement. For Cruz to bring that message into #RNC hall was a colossal error.”
“It’s taken me about 30 minutes to calm down and stop shaking with anger,” said Erik Layton, an alternate delegate from California who had shouted: “Go home” at Cruz after his speech. “I just don’t know why Cruz did this. It baffles my mind.”
Trump, 70, a businessman and former reality TV star who has never been elected to public office, made his entrance to the convention hall near the end of Cruz’s speech, applauding Cruz’s remarks but, by his appearance, drawing attention away from his former rival.
In a tweet after the convention adjourned for the night, Trump wrote that Cruz broke a promise they both had made to endorse the party’s White House choice.
“Wow, Ted Cruz got booed off the stage, didn’t honor the pledge! I saw his speech two hours early but let him speak anyway. No big deal!” Trump wrote.
During the campaign for the party’s nomination, Trump insulted Cruz’s wife’s looks and suggested the Texan’s father was with John F. Kennedy’s assassin just before the president was shot in Dallas in 1963.
Cruz, 45, who as a Tea Party conservative in the U.S. Senate angered many mainstream Republicans in Congress and spearheaded tactics that led to a government shutdown over the federal budget, called Trump a “serial philanderer” and a “narcissist” during the campaign.
A Cruz adviser who asked to remain anonymous said Cruz anticipated a backlash from the crowd if he did not endorse Trump.
“We knew people were going to be mad if he didn’t say the words, but he congratulated him and called for unity behind common values. He expected people to not be thrilled about this,” the adviser said.
Trump won the party’s nomination on Tuesday with 1,725 delegates, followed by Cruz with 475 delegates.
Several delegates were outraged by the reaction to Cruz’s speech, saying it could undermine Trump’s support among Republicans who had supported the senator from Texas.
“I thought it was shameful,” said Manette Merrill, a Cruz delegate from Washington state, adding she was now confident she would not vote for Trump in November. “They talk about unity ... and then they act like that. That is not going to get us to unify,” she said.
The drama did not prevent Trump’s vice presidential running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, from receiving a raucous welcome inside the convention hall to end the day’s events.
Accepting the convention’s nomination, Pence spoke of Trump as a friend of the working class who has persevered in the business world. “He’s a doer in a game usually reserved for talkers,” Pence said.
Trump briefly joined Pence on the stage, shook his hand, patted him on the back, gave a thumbs-up and, in a signal to the crowd, pointed at Pence. But the Cruz speech, the latest in a series of disruptions, overshadowed any show of solidarity.
Cruz swiftly became one of the top trending topics on Twitter and Facebook immediately following his speech, with about 157 tweets mentioning his official Twitter handle @tedcruz posted every minute. The overall immediate sentiment was slightly more positive than negative, according to social media analytics firm Zoomph.
The most mentioned moment on Twitter on Wednesday was the crowd’s reaction to Trump’s arrival at the conclusion of Cruz’s speech. Cruz was also the most mentioned speaker of the night, followed by Pence. Cruz was the most searched speaker on Google.
In a speech minutes after Cruz finished, former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich veered from his prepared text to defend Cruz.
“I think you misunderstood one paragraph that Ted Cruz, who is a superb orator, said. And I just want to point it out to you. Ted Cruz said you can vote your conscience for anyone who will uphold the Constitution. In this election, there is only one candidate who will uphold the Constitution,” Gingrich said.
“To paraphrase Ted Cruz, if you want to protect the Constitution of the United States, the only possible candidate this fall is the Trump-Pence Republican ticket,” Gingrich said.
The convention, due to end on Thursday with Trump’s speech accepting the party’s nomination, has been marked by turmoil from Day One. On Monday, chaos erupted when Trump opponents inside his party stormed out of the room and others chanted to vent frustration over a failed attempt to force a vote in opposition to Trump.
On Tuesday, similarities between some phrases in a speech by Trump’s wife, Melania, and a 2008 speech by first lady Michelle Obama triggered accusations of plagiarism, putting the Trump campaign on the defensive. A staff writer for the Trump Organization on Wednesday took responsibility for the “chaos” over the speech.
Eminent Republicans such as the party’s previous two presidential nominees, Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain, and members of the Bush family that gave the party its last two presidents have stayed away from Cleveland in a show of displeasure at Trump and his rhetoric against illegal immigration and free trade.
Opponents brand Trump a bigot with his calls to temporarily ban the entry of Muslims and to build a border wall with Mexico to keep out illegal immigrants.
Underscoring the problems Trump has faced with U.S. allies abroad, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Reuters on Wednesday that Trump threatened U.S. and world security with his “politics of fear and isolation.”
Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Cleveland, Richard Cowan in Washington and Angela Moon and Alana Wise in New York; Writing by Howard Goller; Editing by Peter Cooney