When Carolina played Villanova for the national basketball championship in April, I was pulling hard for ’Nova. I’m not a Villanova fan; I’m a Duke fan, and watching the Tar Heels lose on such a grand stage was almost as gratifying as watching the Blue Devils win it all the year before.
You Carolina fans know what I mean. You’d root for Russia over Duke. It’s natural.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, one of the nation’s leading Republicans, says that his support for Donald Trump as president is like a Tar Heel rooting for Duke in the big game. He used the analogy to urge North Carolina’s delegation to the Republican National Convention to coalesce around Trump. Instead, it spoke directly to Republicans’ misgivings.
Ryan’s reluctance to back Trump is no secret, and he confirmed that to N.C. delegates at their Tuesday breakfast.
“How many of you had another candidate in mind initially?” he asked. Nearly every hand went up.
He asked the delegates which schools’ sports teams they backed. N.C. State? Carolina? Duke?
“We root for our team, we want them to go all the way … but at the end of the day when one of the teams goes to a bowl game, we root for them, right?”
Doubtful murmurs in the crowd.
“Come on, work with me!” implored Ryan, a big Wisconsin Badgers fan.
“The point I’m trying to make is, we started this year with ruptures, let’s be honest. … We have got to unify to get it right so we can get this job done.
“As much as it pains me to say it, if Wisconsin doesn’t make it to the Rose Bowl, doesn’t make it to the BCS, I’ll root for another Big Ten team. I’ll even root for Michigan.”
This is where Republicans were on the day they officially nominated Donald Trump as their presidential nominee. They are Carolina fans rooting for Duke (Trump) because it’s better than Russia (Hillary Clinton). Some can’t bring themselves to do it. Conversations with delegates here leave the strong impression that Trump was almost nobody’s first choice.
Ryan’s time with the N.C. delegation, in contrast, crystallized what a respectable presidential candidate sounds like. Ryan was smart, funny and serious-minded. He insulted no one. “That’s who the candidate ought to be,” said delegate Jeff Lominac of Conover.
Ryan laid out a six-point platform Republicans want to pursue. It includes proposals around welfare reform, national security, the economy, the separation of powers, Obamacare and overhauling the tax system. He argued that backers of the GOP agenda need to support Trump only because he’s not Hillary Clinton.
Across town, another serious-minded leader did no such thing. Ohio Gov. John Kasich held a rally at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a few blocks from the arena. It is the closest he will get to his own party’s convention in his own state. He has refused to endorse Trump. In his remarks, he never mentioned the nominee and did not urge the crowd to support him.
No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio. Trump, whose campaign manager insulted the popular Kasich this week, may try to become the first.
At Kasich’s rally, the live band played Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” One of its lyrics seemed appropriate, given Kasich’s refusal to get in line behind Trump while other Republicans force themselves to: “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer.”
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Taylor Batten is editorial page editor for the Charlotte Observer.