As Cleveland convention begins, many leading Republicans skipping the party

About 2,000 peaceful protesters held hands in silence on the Hope Memorial Bridge for 30 minutes Sunday in Cleveland. The Republican National Convention kicks off on Monday.

WASHINGTON - When quarterback Tim Tebow shot down reports that he'd speak at the Republican convention this week, he became the most unusual big name to skip the Donald Trump show.

But he's hardly alone.

When the Republican National Convention opens Monday in Cleveland, it will be missing a fleet of the country's most recognizable Republicans, including former presidents, recent presidential nominees, and a chunk of the GOP's congressional roster. With just one exception, every Republican congressman and senator from the Philadelphia area will be somewhere else.

The wide-ranging list of those who won't show reflects the continuing unease over Trump - even as he becomes the party's standard-bearer - and the fears that he could lead to electoral disaster, according to several Republicans and analysts.

"There are more Republicans not going to Cleveland than there are Olympians not going to Rio," said Christopher Nicholas, a Republican consultant based in Harrisburg. "Donald Trump turned out to be a bigger deterrent than the Zika virus."

Neither George H.W. Bush nor George W. Bush, the only living Republicans to have won the presidency, will attend the convention. Mitt Romney and John McCain, GOP nominees in 2012 and 2008, respectively, are skipping it, too. Bob Dole is the only past Republican nominee planning to go.

Former New Jersey Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman won't be there, though Gov. Christie - a finalist for running mate before Trump chose Indiana Gov. Mike Pence last week - is likely to have a prime speaking role.

For Republicans in competitive congressional races, "this is a very problematic thing," said Whitman, a Trump critic. "They've got to think long and hard about being seen there as part of the Trump rally, because that's what it will be."

Many of Trump's vanquished presidential rivals won't go, either.

Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul are staying away. Even the home-state governor, John Kasich, is unlikely to go into the arena hosting the main convention events. Kasich plans to participate in other activities in Cleveland.

Of course, many Republicans, including grassroots voters and party insiders, are enthusiastic about Trump and hoping to defeat Hillary Clinton. Several said they were eager to be part of history.

But Republicans facing close races seem less enthused.

Sen. Pat Toomey, locked in one of the Senate's toughest contests and still undecided on Trump, said he would be campaigning in Pennsylvania this week.

Rep. Ryan Costello, of Chester County, ran for a delegate slot and won - but then surrendered it to an alternate, saying he'd rather take meetings in his district and spend time with his family.

"The nominee, for all intents and purposes, has been chosen, so to me there's nothing to vote on," he said.

Costello attended the 2012 convention, when Romney was the sure nominee, but said he learned that the events were largely just "a bunch of dinners and waiting in line."

Brian Fitzpatrick, who is running in a tight Bucks County-based congressional race, "has a packed schedule" in the district this week, a spokesman said.

Fitzpatrick aides had not answered Inquirer requests - since May - asking whether he supports Trump, until Friday.

The 333-word statement, emailed by a spokesman, stopped short of firmly endorsing Trump. In it, Fitzpatrick criticized Clinton, rated Trump more likely to build a strong national security team, praised the billionaire's stand on "unfair trade agreements," and said he hoped Trump would reveal more policy specifics at the convention.

(The statement came as Democrats have harried Fitzpatrick over the likely GOP nominee, in part by circulating a video of Fitzpatrick appearing to hide his face as he rides in a pickup truck that has a Trump flag in back.)

Most local Republicans said they'd rather meet with constituents than go to Cleveland. Rep. Patrick Meehan, of Delaware County, has a longer trip planned - to Israel, Jordan, and Eastern Europe.

It was unclear whether he will vote for Trump. Meehan said he was concerned about Trump's tone and wants to see his vision for the country, but "I do believe he has struck a chord."

"I suspect we're all going to end up supporting the Republican ticket," Meehan said. "I'm not going to vote for Hillary Clinton."

Those skipping the convention insist that it's not because of Trump: Democrats will try to tie them to the nominee no matter what, they said.

Still, a convention presents its own challenges, especially one with the unpredictable billionaire at center stage.

"You literally have no sense of where this is all going," said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian. "All of a sudden there could be another story of an anti-Semitic tweet, and there you are standing next to him."

But there is also a risk to staying away. Those who don't support Trump could face GOP wrath if Clinton prevails in November.

"If you're a Republican, and you're not working for Donald Trump, you're working for Hillary Clinton," Christie said on MSNBC last week.

Rep. Tom MacArthur, a South Jerseyan close with Christie, is the only local member of Congress who plans to be in Cleveland. The mild-mannered freshman from the Third District, which covers parts of Burlington and Ocean Counties, downplayed the risk of being linked to Trump, saying voters can distinguish between the two.

"It's important to get behind our party and our nominee and it's a privilege to be there," said MacArthur, who will be attending his first convention. "Maybe I'll get a selfie with LeBron James."

Some GOP delegates said unpredictability was part of the draw, as skirmishes have continued over the party platform and even a last-ditch effort to stop Trump.

Michael Puppio, of Delaware County, said past conventions were so scripted that they seemed to be infomercials. "Do you or I watch infomercials?"

He expects delegates to have much more to do this time around.

"For some, it's going to be very exciting. For some, I think it's going to be very disturbing," said Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania Republican strategist who has attended 10 conventions.

Count Wayne Buckwalter in the excited camp. The Downingtown resident has closely followed politics for years but never got involved himself - until running to become a Trump delegate in the April primary. He said he was searching online to figure out what to wear to such an event.

An Obama voter in 2008 and 2012, he sees Trump as someone who will finally shake up the political system - and Buckwalter wants to help him formally secure the nomination.

Looming over the various political concerns is a more elemental worry: a fear of violent clashes between Trump supporters and protesters.

Ohio's open-carry gun law will allow firearms at the potentially tense protests around the event.

"I'm not a wimp, but I'm concerned for my safety," said Charles Breslin, a Philadelphia lobbyist who usually schmoozes at both party conventions.

He'll skip Cleveland: "I'd rather not get shot."

jtamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari

www.philly.com/capitolinq

Staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald contributed to this article.


What local lawmakers are saying about Trump and convention

Most Democrats have united behind Hillary Clinton, but for Republicans in Congress, Donald Trump has created a dilemma. Below is a list of where the region's GOP lawmakers and candidates stand on their party's likely nominee.

Sen. Pat Toomey - Pennsylvania

Attending this week's convention in Cleveland? No.

Supporting Trump? Unclear.

Quote: "I'm hoping Donald Trump can say and do the things that will make me comfortable supporting him. . . . I'm not there yet."

Rep. Ryan Costello - PA6

Attending convention? No.

Supporting Trump? Yes.

Quote: "He will be supporting the Republican nominee," a spokesman said.

Brian Fitzpatrick - candidate for PA8 House seat

Attending convention? No.

Supporting Trump? Unclear.

Quote: "Comparatively speaking, [Trump] is more likely to surround himself with a national security team that will be better able to protect our country."

Rep. Frank LoBiondo - NJ2

Attending convention? No. (Also skipped the last two.)

Supporting Trump? Yes.

Quote: "I have always supported the Republican nominee and will support the Republican nominee this year."

Rep. Tom MacArthur - NJ3

Attending convention? Yes.

Supporting Trump? Yes.

Quote: "Millions of party members have nominated our presumptive nominee and he would be far better than Hillary Clinton."

Rep. Patrick Meehan - PA7

Attending convention? No.

Supporting Trump? Unclear.

Quote: "I'm still a little bit concerned about his tone. I do believe he has struck a chord with a great deal of voters. . . . I suspect we're all going to end up supporting the Republican ticket. I'm not going to vote for Hillary Clinton."

- Jonathan Tamari

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