WASHINGTON — Speaking mostly from a teleprompter, Donald Trump charmed a conference full of evangelical activists on Friday after a tumultuous week for his campaign.
Trump spoke to the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority Conference at D.C.'s Omni Shoreham Hotel on Friday, taking the stage 45 minutes behind schedule. Trump focused mostly on Hillary Clinton and gave the kind of controlled, measured performance Republicans have been hoping he would deliver after a disastrous week dominated by Trump's racist attacks on a judge.
FFC head Ralph Reed introduced Trump as someone who has "become a good friend," and had earlier in the morning given a speech urging evangelicals to back Trump while obliquely acknowledging his flaws.
"Unlike a lot of our friends on the other side, we're not looking for a political messiah, because we already have a messiah," Reed said. "Perfection is not the measure that should be applied," Reed said, not to any political leader or person.
Evangelicals were "called to put away our ‘my way or the highway’ pride," Reed said. "Different persons have different modes of excellence."
Trump finally arrived after a long interlude in which Reed had to improvise while Trump headed toward the venue, and gave a relatively short, controlled speech that stood out only for its similarity to any other politician's standard stump speech.
Trump alternated between reading off the teleprompter and appearing to ad-lib every few lines (dropping in "believe me" and other catchphrases), his tone and demeanor markedly different in either mode.
Trump did not mention Gonzalo Curiel, the judge in the Trump University case whom Trump has repeatedly attacked because of his Mexican heritage; the attacks have caused turmoil in the Republican Party and Republican leaders have publicly and privately begged him to stop. He didn't mention Elizabeth Warren, who endorsed Hillary Clinton yesterday and whom Trump has been referring to as "Pocahontas" on Twitter. And when protesters interrupted his speech, Trump stayed cool, merely remarking, "Very rude." Trump gave a standard anti–Hillary Clinton speech with a few nods to his evangelical audience, vowing, "We will respect and defend Christian Americans. Christian Americans."
For this, Trump received a standing ovation. The scene offered a sharp contrast from a talk Trump gave last year to the Values Voter Summit, another gathering of Christian political activists, where he was booed. There was also the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa last year, where Trump said he had never sought forgiveness from God.
The embrace at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference comes despite Trump's shaky credentials on the issues these voters care about, including abortion and marriage. But the stakes have changed now that Trump is the nominee.
"I think increasingly the faith community is feeling more and more confident that they can be comfortable supporting him enthusiastically," said Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. "There are gonna be two choices; one’s gonna win and one’s gonna lose. The bottom line is if they stay home or they don’t vote, we’ll get Hillary Clinton."
"I know that he doesn't have the strong conservative practices that I have, but I believe that he understands and that he supports it," said Suzan Weaver, an activist at the conference from Washington.
"His tone, it doesn't offend me," Weaver said.
Not everyone was impressed. Carly Fiorina, who was a frequent and harsh critic of Trump during the primary, told the audience, "We have to win the right way," and seemed to urge them to focus on down-ballot races.
"He's not a constitutionalist. You don't know what he believes in; he says one thing one minute, then he flip-flops. He turns around when they corner him on something and he changes his story," said Juanita Eads, an activist from Florida. "He supports Planned Parenthood."
"He says what he thinks you want to hear," Eads said. "Just like Obama does."