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Analysis: Day 1 of Donald Trump’s convention: Scattered in message, unruly in delivery

Donald Trump greets his wife Melania after her speech Monday night at the Republican National Convention.
Donald Trump greets his wife Melania after her speech Monday night at the Republican National Convention.
(Associated Press)

The theme of Monday’s opening night of the Republican National Convention was “Make America Safe Again.” In other words, “Make America Safe from Hillary Clinton.”

Donald Trump, who will accept his party’s nomination Thursday, was barely mentioned by many of the speakers, nor were specifics of the few concrete proposals he has made.

The focus instead was on presumptive Democratic nominee Clinton and Republican fears that she would extend President Obama’s two terms in office.

Criticism of the other side, of course, is always part of the convention lineup. But successful conventions typically have a point — to send a strong message to the Americans who will decide the next president.

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Sometimes the candidate needs to be humanized. Sometimes gaps of knowledge need to be filled in. At the least, each convention night provides an hour — more on cable stations — of free television coverage to convey a consistent message.

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From reality TV stars to Donald Trump’s wife, catch up quick on the opening day of the GOP convention. More coverage at latimes.com/trailguide

By that standard, the first night of Donald Trump’s convention was less than fully successful — scattershot in its message and undisciplined in its delivery.

Indeed, the most disciplined moment may have been Trump’s own extremely brief introduction of his wife, Melania.

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The evening did have dramatic high points. Bereft parents whose children had been killed by immigrants in the country illegally spoke emotionally. Trump himself appeared, backlit on stage before introducing his wife.

But the night lacked the thematic unity that usually marks a successful production.

Despite the ostensible message of safety, the shootings of and by police that have riveted the nation in recent weeks were barely mentioned, except for in praise of the police. Only one speaker, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, even mentioned civilian deaths and that came amid a screaming, arm-flailing defense of law enforcement.

More than a dozen speakers spent far more time on criticism of Clinton and Obama than on any sustained effort to explain the different direction that Trump would take beyond generalities attesting to his toughness. Even that message was somewhat undercut as Melania Trump talked of her husband’s big heart and cast him as a softie.

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Other speakers used language and images of the sort that have tormented the Republican Party in its efforts to expand its reach among general election voters, who are less conservative and less white than those who dominate Republican primaries.

One speaker, actor Scott Baio, pointedly said that being American “doesn’t mean getting free stuff,” the precise wording that Republicans have used to characterize the government programs that they contend poor and minority Democrats abuse. That came before Melania Trump asserted that her husband planned “new programs to help the poor.”

Others referred to “illegal aliens,” a term offensive to many Latinos, a group that Republicans promised to focus on after they lost the last election and before Trump fueled his campaign with talk of building a huge wall on the Mexican border and used the terms “murderers” and “rapists” to describe Mexican immigrants coming to the U.S. illegally.

Lengthy speeches were devoted to blow-by-blow descriptions of the attack on the U.S. mission in Libya in 2012, when Clinton served as secretary of State. That issue remains a potent one among core Republican voters, but after myriad investigations into Benghazi, most of those voters are probably already in Trump’s camp.

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Among the headline speakers, only one, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, overtly reached out to voters who did not participate in the Republican primaries.

“My generation is willing to fight so that our children might live in peace,” said Cotton, who served as an Army officer in Iraq and Afghanistan. “And for that cause, I speak tonight not only to Republicans, but to the millions of Independents and Democrats who share that dream and who wish to make America safe again.”

By contrast, one of the final speakers, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, struck a partisan tone that was harsh even by the standards of political conventions.

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“Yeah, that’s right, lock her up,” Flynn said of Clinton, who he said should drop out of the campaign because of her use of a private server to house her emails while secretary of State. “You’re damn right, exactly right,” he added as the crowd began to chant “lock her up.”

Part of the problem for Republican convention planners is that most of Trump’s plans remain on the drawing board. His campaign has rested on more general statements about the need for economic change, a closing of the borders, lessened trade and a less interventionist policy abroad.

The lack of a specific set of plans that each speaker could hammer home for all four nights of the convention may represent a lost opportunity for Trump — one he can ill afford given that he trails, if narrowly, in most polls and faces a financial deficit in the general election.

Other lost opportunities have been visible as the convention neared.

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An interview broadcast Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes” designed to showcase the relationship between Trump and his new running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, demonstrated the differences between them on key subjects — trade, the Iraq war, negative campaigning.

On Monday morning, rather than remain focused on what he would bring to the country, Trump instead delved into innuendo about President Obama’s loyalties.

In an interview on Fox News, Trump agreed with the host’s repetition of a prior guest’s comment that Obama “has blood on his hands” when it comes to violence against police officers. Referring to Obama’s speech to the nation Sunday, Trump called the president “a great divider.”

“I mean, you know, I watched the president and sometimes the words are OK, but you just look at the body language. There’s something going on,” Trump told the Fox anchors. “Look, there’s something going on and the words are not often OK, by the way.”

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“What does that mean, there’s something going on?” host Steve Doocy asked.

“There’s just a bad feeling, a lot of bad feeling about him,” Trump said.

Seconds later, after host Brian Kilmeade referred to assertions by other Republicans that African Americans often are treated more severely by law enforcement, Trump asserted that there’s “definitely something going on there also.”

“And it has to do with training and it has to do with something,” he said.

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Clinton took the opposite tack. In a speech Monday to the NAACP in Cincinnati, she insisted that rather than a nation divided over race relations, America was coming together.

“Yes, we have made progress,” she said. “We can see the results in classrooms where children of all races side by side, in boardrooms and break rooms where workers of all backgrounds are able to earn a living and support their families, every level of government where more and more the people we elect to represent America actually look like America.”

Of the police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., and earlier shootings by police of African American men, she said, “This madness has to stop.”

“Watching the news from Baton Rouge yesterday, my heart broke,” Clinton said.

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Clinton outlined specifics she has been laying out for more than a year to improve relations between African Americans and law enforcement, to improve the lot of struggling blacks and to provide more accountability and support to police.

That was the kind of approach that might have been expected to be on the agenda Monday night, as Trump opened the convention that will give him the nomination. Instead, there was little to help guide the decisions of the undecided voters who will determine the election.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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