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As Trump returns to Cleveland, Cruz supporters stick around

Cruz’s backers offered a solitary statement of dissent that played out on a waterfront patio—not the convention floor
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a caucus night rally as his wife Heidi listens Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. Cruz sealed a victory in the Republican Iowa caucuses, winning on the strength of his relentless campaigning and support from his party’s diehard conservatives. (Chris Carlson/AP)

CLEVELAND – A crowd booed a reference to Donald Trump at a Republican party event Wednesday, just as his plane was landing in Cleveland where he’ll be celebrated as the party’s presidential nominee.

The audible protest rippled through a group of staunch conservatives gathered for a rally with Sen. Ted Cruz, illustrating ongoing divisions within the party over the dual matters of policy substance and personal style.

Cruz was thanking his campaign supporters and noted that they came close to defeating 16 talented candidates — but fell one short. He then said: “Our party now has a nominee,” and that’s when the crowd engaged in an extended and forceful round of boos. Some chanted: “2020! 2020!” amid expectation Cruz will run again.

One man mumbled of Trump: “He’s a Democrat.” One woman shouted: “New leaders in the RNC!”

The Republican National Committee went out of its way to avoid scenes like this on the convention floor, whipping up support against attempts to force a contested vote in full view of television audiences.

So the solitary statement of dissent played out on a waterfront patio. Ironically, it happened as Trump’s plane landed in the city where he’ll claim the party crown Thursday. As the crowd booed, Cruz looked up and laughed when he realized who was buzzing by.

“That was pretty well-orchestrated,” said the Texas senator, as he called out to his campaign manager Jeff Roe.

“Jeff, did you email them to fly the plane right when I said that?”

Those boos underscore more serious struggles ahead in the party — first, over whether it will turn out for Trump in November. Cruz hasn’t endorsed him yet, and is scheduled to speak at the convention.

Then there’s the longer-term debate over the party’s direction.

Cruz urged supporters to follow their conscience in the years ahead. He suggested uniting around a person is less important than uniting around principles like small government.

“There’s a lot of talk about unity. I want to see unity,” he said. “And the way you see unity is for us to unite in defence of shared principles.”

The differences between Cruz and Trump were based in principle, as well as personality. Early in this election cycle, the Texas senator cosied up to the billionaire businessman, refusing to criticize him in the hope of winning his supporters later.

But things turned unusually bitter.

By the end, Cruz was calling him a “snivelling coward” and a pathological liar. By that point, Trump had insulted Cruz’s wife’s physical appearance in a retweet, had teamed up with friends at the National Enquirer to spread unsubstiated rumours of infidelity and suggested Cruz’s father might have been connected to the Kennedy assassination.

The differences were also substantive.

Trump has been less focused on social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and transgender rights than Cruz. But he’s expressed greater keenness on torture and law-and-order. Unlike Cruz, Trump also wants to rip up existing trade deals.

Cruz’s former campaign manager said he’ll continue to fight for his issues.

If that occasionally ruffles the feathers of nominee or president Trump, so be it.

“He would do that to anybody,” Jeff Roe said in an interview. “(Cruz) is not bashful. Where they align on issues, you won’t have a better ally. And when they’re opposed you won’t have a more vigorous opponent.”

Will he endorse the man who insulted his wife and dad?

Roe said he hasn’t seen the convention speech. But Roe suggested conservatives might take some time to watch Trump, and judge him by his actions.

“We have another 115 days to figure it out. … We have a nominee and people are looking to find ways to be supportive,” Roe said.

“And (we’ll) see how he conducts the campaign.”

In interviews with four conservatives at the Cruz rally, three said they’ll support Trump. One said he might — if Trump shows more discipline, and more gravitas instead of his constant headline-grabbing stunts.

A husband and wife from Virginia echoed the ambivalence in the room.

Judy Pestrak said: “We are all going to support the nominee.”

Her husband Bill interjected: “Whether we like him or not.”

Bill Pestrak, a Cruz donor, said what matters to him is protecting traditional values. He worries about the breakdown of the traditional family, of gender roles, and of constitutional rights like freedom of speech and bearing arms.

He’s concerned about liberals undoing the things he cares for, if they get to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court starting with the one following the death of Antonin Scalia.

“It’s all about the Supreme Court,” he said. “It has nothing to do with Donald Trump.”

Does he even trust Trump to keep his primary promise to appoint conservative judges? “No.” But there’s a chance he will — and a Democratic president won’t. In the end it’s, as Judy Pestrak put it: “Anybody but Hillary.”