Trump in the spotlight for big Cleveland convention speech

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CLEVELAND Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gets his best chance to date on Thursday night to lay out his rationale for why Americans should choose him over Democrat Hillary Clinton, trying to close out a raucous convention on an upbeat note.

Trump, a New York businessman who has never held elective office, needs a strong performance to improve his chances of getting a boost in opinion polls from the four-day Republican National Convention as Democrats prepare for their own, more scripted version next week in Philadelphia.

Trump and his aides have been unable to put to rest questions about whether they can mount a sophisticated campaign to take on Clinton’s well-oiled operation. He currently trails Clinton, who is seeking to become the first woman elected U.S. president, in most opinion polls.

The speech will set the tone for Trump’s next three months of campaigning ahead of the Nov. 8 election, explaining why he feels Clinton is unfit to lead and why he would be better at improving the U.S. economy and handling the threat of Islamic State militants.

Trump will be introduced by his daughter Ivanka Trump who has been an important behind-the-scenes adviser. The remarks by Trump, 70, will close out a convention that was boycotted by many big-name establishment Republicans, such as 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and members of the Bush family that gave the party its last two presidents.

The prevailing narrative at the Cleveland convention has not been about Trump’s positions, but dominated instead by the failure of he party’s various factions to unite behind Trump because of lingering concerns over his policy positions and temperament.

Trump wants to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, ban Muslims from war-torn Middle Eastern countries and renegotiate international trade agreements. He also says he would force U.S. allies in Europe and Asia to pay more for the U.S. defense umbrella. All those positions go against prevailing Republican beliefs.

Speakers in Cleveland have placed a heavy focus on defeating Clinton, rather than on policy. The audience frequently chanted: “Lock her up,” in a call to jail the former first lady for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state and her handling of an attack on a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 that killed four Americans.

UPROAR

A series of distractions has largely thwarted a bid by the Trump campaign to show him as a caring father and magnanimous business leader who would bring greater prosperity and safety to the United States.

Trump’s wife, Melania Trump, made the biggest strides toward that goal. But when it was discovered her remarks repeated lines from a 2008 speech by Michelle Obama, the wife of Democratic President Barack Obama, the uproar lasted for three days.

On Wednesday night, Trump’s last major rival during the bitterly fought Republican primary battle, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, was booed off stage for refusing to endorse Trump and urging Republicans instead to “vote your conscience.”

The Cruz and Trump camps spent the day on Thursday exchanging insults, with Cruz saying he could not endorse a candidate who during the primary campaign had insulted his wife, Heidi, and suggested his father had some role in the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father,” Cruz told a meeting of the Texas delegation in Cleveland.

Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. told NBC News the uproar went a long way toward uniting Republicans behind Trump.

“In the end it actually worked out great for us, because what little – if there was any dissension – really galvanized behind us after that moment,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson, Angela Moon, Michelle Conlin and David Alexander; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Cooney)