On the ground in Cleveland: What you don't see on TV at the GOP convention

There's one big topic of conversation in Cleveland on Tuesday, and it's not any of last night's "Make America Safe Again" speeches.

If you believe the old axiom "if you’re explaining, you’re losing," then it’s safe to say the Republicans aren’t having the kind of convention Tuesday they wanted.

High-ranking members of the GOP from Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have appeared on cable TV to defend Melania Trump from plagiarism accusations. Facile or not, the claims that her headlining Monday night speech was a little too similar to Michelle Obama’s 2008 address to the Democratic National Convention is the number one topic of conversation around Cleveland today.

Talking to communications experts around town, the prevailing point of view is that the Trump campaign’s "never apologize, never backtrack" strategy is only prolonging the life of the story to the point where it threatens to hang like a cloud over Tuesday night’s events. Had GOP spokespeople acknowledged the mistake — and they could have called it just that — instead of explaining themselves in circles, they might be talking about last night’s "Make America Safe Again" speeches this afternoon.

Meanwhile, here’s a peak behind the curtain at the convention: There’s an army of journalists on-the-ground in Cleveland, 15,000-strong, covering everything from protests and counter protests to law enforcement activity, and yes, even the convention itself. Picture the biggest industry convention you’re ever attended, and imagine the floor filled end-to-end with workstations instead of booths. That’s what the media work area at the Cleveland Convention Center looks like, not including many TV networks. And like every event, the wi-fi could be better.

This time around, the media cycle is being driven by forces outside the arena. An observer on Twitter uncovered the similar passages between Michelle Obama’s and Melania Trump’s speeches, and well after many journalists (like me) closed up shop for the night.

Remember the first time you had great seats at a baseball game — or a concert if you’re not into sports analogies — and noticing all of the little things the players do that you don’t see on TV? Likewise, even from high above the convention floor in Quicken Arena, the work of the whips to fire up the crowd is evident. So is the scrum of TV cameras following the most newsworthy guests. For instance, Christie, fresh off reports that he did not take Mike Pence winning the VP spot on the Republican ticket well, was followed by a pack of TV cameras to his seat on the floor on Monday night and back. It’s also clear when speakers such as retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and rising Republican star Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) are playing to a half-empty house after the headline speakers exit the stage.

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s fire-and-brimstone speech may have been considered shouty in various parts of the internet, but he had the convention floor eating out of the palm of his hand. So did Pat Smith, whose son Sean died in the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. However, Fox News viewers were listening to a Donald Trump call-in interview on The O’Reilly Factor at that time, a move former White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer called "malpractice" on Twitter.

More to come from Quicken Arena and all over Cleveland this week. 

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