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February 24th, 2017

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Trump's acceptance speech tonight shaping up to be a make-or-break moment

Dan Balz

By Dan Balz The Washington Post

Published July 21, 2016

CLEVELAND --- Donald Trump has left himself with a mighty challenge for the final day of the Republican National Convention. After three days of tumult and controversy, the success - or not - of the week now depends even more heavily than it should on his performance Thursday night.

Trump might not have it any other way. Maybe this was always part of the plan, to create the drama and heighten the stakes ahead of his acceptance speech. After all, the campaign has always been about him. He's the candidate, chief strategist, communications director and opposition researcher all wrapped up in one unlikely package. Thursday night, he must also be seen as a possible president.

The first days of his convention have been messy, highlighting a divided party and a convention floor that has seen angry protest and at other times what might be described as low energy. When the delegates have sparked to life, it has often been due to the contempt that many have for Hillary Clinton. The raw and unofficial battle cry here - "Lock her up!" - speaks to the coarseness and negativity of 2016.

No doubt Trump is confident about Thursday. By his own boasts, he is the ultimate clutch performer, the man with ice water in his veins in crucial moments. He believes, as he has said throughout the campaign, that he is a winner - capable of dominating in any setting.

What awaits him Thursday night, however, is no "Apprentice" moment. It is reality TV at the highest level - as serious and critical a test as he has faced during the 13 months he has been a candidate. He'll be judged in ways he hasn't been evaluated before, and likely by a larger audience than any so far.

Ratings, however, aren't the issue. He probably will get them. He draws eyeballs, for better and for worse. But what will really count is whether Trump accomplishes everything that still needs to be done. He needs this convention to send him out of Cleveland on Thursday night absent controversy, without damaging questions trailing behind him and, in the best of all worlds, with a wider group of voters prepared to take a fresh look at him.

For Trump, this will be unlike the other tests of his candidacy, one that will cross-pressure him. The most unconventional of candidates now must navigate the most conventional rite of passage of any presidential campaign as he makes the official transition to general-election candidate and possible president.

Trump promised more than his convention has delivered. Each night has had a crisp theme: making America safe, making America work, making America first. But the speeches have not always followed the theme. Most of Tuesday's speeches, for example, lacked real content about jobs or the economy, whether in critiquing Clinton's policies or outlining what Trump would do.

Trump promised showbiz, glitz, glamour to spice up what can be a parade of politicians, many of them not well known to the country, delivering boilerplate rhetoric. But "pizzazz" isn't the first word to describe the events so far. The convention has delivered little on that front that has broken through, with celebrities who are aging stars and not even as well known as some of the politicians.

The best showbiz moment came Monday night when Trump rose up silhouetted on the stage in a smoky cloud, a Las Vegas entry in the heart of the Rust Belt. On Wednesday, he flew into Cleveland and then switched to his helicopter, with the familiar Trump logo, for the short trip to a field by the lake. It was a photo-op moment, but hardly something that fulfills his promise of something really different.

Some speeches have broken through. Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani roused the convention delegates Monday with a fiery speech that offered validation of Trump as a law-and-order candidate who has a softer human side. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sent a jolt of electricity through the convention on Tuesday night when he played prosecutor against Clinton's record. "Guilty or not guilty?" he asked. The crowd roared back its predictable verdict.

Still, many speakers have left the audience flat and the television networks scrambling for counter-programming. Ordinarily, the networks spend most of the hour between 10 and 11 p.m. with their cameras focused on the stage and the speakers. This week, because some of those speakers have lacked star power or a compelling message, the networks have cut away. Through its own scheduling decision, the campaign has robbed itself of what should be its best opportunity to deliver an undiluted message on behalf of the candidate.

The Trump family has drawn much praise. Donald Trump Jr. was effective on Tuesday night in talking about his father. Before he spoke, Tiffany Trump, the second-youngest of his five children, offered testimonials about Trump as a dad. Before Trump speaks on Thursday, the convention will also have heard from two other children, Eric and Ivanka Trump

The highlight of Monday's program was Melania Trump. She wowed the delegates, and no doubt many watching on television with her poise and delivery. But within hours, the campaign was plunged into controversy over charges of plagiarism because of passages in the speech that had been lifted from the 2008 convention speech by Michelle Obama.

The controversy provided chum for a huge and ravenous press corps, which pursued the details of how something as basic as the vetting of such a high-profile speech had gone wrong. For a day, the campaign hunkered down, pointed fingers and tried to ride out the storm - without success.

On Wednesday, they pivoted to a different strategy by identifying a culprit. Meredith McIver, a writer who has worked on Trump's books, came forward and confessed that the error was hers alone.

Trump must hope that the confession will end the controversy. He needs a clean break ahead of Thursday night. He wants the focus to be on him and his speech, not on mistakes made by his campaign that have added to doubts about its readiness for what will be a hard-fought contest against the Clinton machinery.

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