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In Colorado, conservatives grapple with the Trump conundrum

Western Conservative Summit
Participants stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver on Friday.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

To understand the dilemma Colorado Republicans wrestled with at a conservative gathering this weekend, one only had to look at the range of speakers, whose positions on Donald Trump ran the gamut from enthusiastic support to vehement opposition.

Trump himself came to Colorado for the Western Conservative Summit, an annual weekend-long confab organized by a local Christian university. As did Hugh Hewitt, the radio personality and one-time Trump skeptic turned reluctant supporter. Yet so did Ben Shapiro, a conservative writer staunchly against Trump.

Perhaps nowhere does Trump’s candidacy vex Republicans more visibly than Colorado, which is home base for the latest effort to block his nomination at this month’s national convention, and where Republicans faced Trump’s ire during the primaries for its complex caucus system.

“We call it the Frontier State for a reason. There’s a lot of independently minded thinkers out here,” said state GOP Chairman Steve House. “We have a lot of unaffiliated voters for a reason. I think that it’s just that we have delegates who are not convinced he’s the right guy.”

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Trump tried to make amends, acknowledging the pivotal role this swing state will play in November. “We do have to win Colorado,” he told a crowd of several thousand Friday. “I’ll be back a lot.”

He also gave a nod to two of the state’s core conservative constituencies — gun rights advocates and evangelical Christians. But the mentions struck some attendees as discordant.

“He’s at a think tank aligned with a conservative Christian college. And then he says, ‘Are there any evangelicals here?’ It’s a weird way to talk about it when you’re in [front of] this audience,” said Ryan Call, a former chairman of the Colorado Republican party.

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That may not be harmful for an unconventional politician like Trump, Call said, who could tap into Colorado’s independent voters.

“He is rewriting the playbook,” Call said. “He is coming at it from a very different orientation and perspective of what makes up a Trump voter. I will tell you, they don’t make up traditional Republican voter in a lot of ways.”   

But Trump also dwelt on his past squabbles with the state’s establishment, lamenting the complicated delegate selection process that left him without any loyalists in its delegation to Cleveland. In the spring, Trump loudly denounced the system as corrupt, stoking a pushback against state Republicans that was so fierce that House received death threats.

Trump turned off some summit-goers by bringing up his complaints about the state’s delegate process again. 

“He’s here to unify, supposedly, and get us on board with his message. And he comes and drives a dagger in us again,” said Kendal Unruh, a Denver-based schoolteacher and longtime conservative activist who said Trump’s original tirade against the Colorado caucuses hardened her opposition to him.

She has since become one of the most public faces of the “free the delegates” movement that seeks to enable convention delegates to vote for whomever they’d like, instead of being bound to the results of their state’s caucus or primary.

House, the state party chief, said he was not taking a position on the effort, but said he didn’t expect it would make a difference even if the delegates were unbound.

“I don’t think enough delegates will vote against him who are currently pledged to him to matter,” he said.

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At the gathering, Trump had a contingent of vigorous backers, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who dismissed the movement as “Republicans Against Trump — or RAT for short.”

Republican Senate candidate Darryl Glenn, looking to unseat incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) in a closely watched race, pledged to stand with Trump and pleaded with attendees to do the same. 

But the anti-Trump faction was also prominent at the weekend gathering. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, one of the Republicans most ardently against Trump, spoke to student groups and at a donor dinner, where, according to attendees, he talked about the importance of virtue and how neither candidate struck him as having strong enough morals to earn his support.

Some of the most vocal Trump holdouts in conservative media, including Erick Erickson and Shapiro, were also given prominent speaking slots.

“Conservatism is in danger of slaughtering its principles on the altar of Trump,” Shapiro said in scathing remarks that drew a mix of boos and cheers.

Jeff Hunt, the director of the Centennial Institute, the conservative think tank that organized the event, said he heard objections from all sides about the conference’s mixed fare.

“‘Why are you inviting Donald Trump? He’s not a conservative.’ I heard that from the Ben Sasses of the world,” Hunt said. “And then from the other side I heard, ‘Why are you inviting Ben Sasse and Erick Erickson? Because right now if we want to advance conservatism, we need to stop Hillary Clinton.’

“Listen, this isn’t about one particular election,” he added. “We’re family here. If we can’t get together at the Western Conservative Summit, where can we get together?”

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Outside the gathering, anti-Trump protesters tangled with supporters. Three people were arrested on Friday according to Denver police, two for public fighting and another for interference.

Inside the convention center, many summit-goers expressed a grudging acceptance for their party’s likely nominee.

“Of the 17 candidates, he was the bottom of the heap for me,” said Tim McTavish, who runs an online-giving platform for nonprofits. Nevertheless, he came around to Trump this weekend, swayed by the pragmatic argument of preventing a Democratic president from filling likely Supreme Court vacancies.

Joan Tupper, a retiree from Arvada, said she had initially preferred Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

“I’m pretty much a Coloradan that way,” she said. But she sides with Trump over Clinton for the general election.

Still, she appreciated the debate rippling through the weekend summit; it’s one happening in her own family.

“My twin sister — she does not like Trump at all,” said Tupper, 82. “She’d vote for Hillary before she’d vote for Trump.” 

melanie.mason@latimes.com

Follow @melmason for the latest on national politics.

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