On the road to Cleveland, where 'conscience' is key

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Jason Schultz said he’s driving to Cleveland, but not on the back of the “old tractor” where I reached the state senator a few days ago at his farm near Schleswig in Western Iowa.

One week he’s hauling corn to an ethanol plant, when he’s not being bugged by a columnist. The next, he’s headed to his first Republican National Convention as an Iowa delegate.

“I can’t wait to see the cornfields. I’m obviously interested in that,” Schultz said of his long drive ahead of today’s first delegate activities and Monday’s opening day. “We’ll head down the highway and take our time. This is new territory for me, and I love seeing America.”

But will America love seeing what Republicans are about to do in Cleveland?

It’s also new, uncharted territory. The GOP is about to recalibrate our GPS. Hang on.

Barring unforeseen drama, or a Lake Erie tsunami, they’re going to nominate Donald Trump to be president of the United States. Yep, that Trump.

The one who started his campaign by claiming Mexico is sending rapists across the border, who suggested using a deportation force to round up 11 million people, who insisted, in Iowa, that POWs aren’t really war heroes, who mocked a disabled reporter, who floated the idea of banning all Muslims from entering the country, who has a better working knowledge of “Trump: The Art of the Deal” than the U.S. Constitution and who most recently claimed “some people” are holding moments of silence to honor the Dallas shooter. Evidence? Nah. But Twitter was on fire. Mission accomplished.

He’s the one with high energy, a great memory and the pants, on fire. Can’t miss him.

Or maybe he’s the nominee all good, loyal Republicans now have a duty to get behind, regardless of their personal misgivings, or risk losing the presidency to Democrat Hillary Clinton. He won the thing fair and square. The voters have spoken. Respect the process. On to November.

It’s all a matter of conscience, it seems.

“I’m going to vote my conscience,” Schultz said. “But what that means is I promised over 1,000 Republicans in Fort Dodge at the district convention that, if Donald Trump got over 1,237 delegates, I would vote to validate his nomination. And he has done that.

“In my gut, I’m concerned,” said Schultz, who supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and originally ran for a delegate slot hoping the convention would be an open contest for the nomination. “But I have so many people that I like, respect and care for, who have been with Trump the entire time, I leave it open that I’m simply missing something. They’re seeing something that I’m not.”

Cecil Stinemetz, who also is on the road to Cleveland, is arriving at a different destination.

The delegate from Urbandale supported Cruz, and is now refusing to cast his vote for Trump. He’s closely followed a complicated, insider struggle over convention rules aimed at giving disaffected, anti-Trump delegates a chance to alter the party’s path, or at least dent the Trump train.

“I expect to go and vote my conscience,” Stinemetz said.

“I’m doing it because I know who he is, and I know what he will do. If he was to get into the White House, and use that power like he threatens to do now, it’s a disaster,” he said. “I am looking at this out of love for my country. I want to help save this country. And I think in order to do that, we have to stop Donald Trump.”

Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, who is also a delegate, predicts no insurgency will derail Trump. But he has other concerns.

“What I worry about if something happens that is embarrassing to the state,” Kaufmann said. “Everybody who has a vote on our first-in-the-nation status, they’re all right there. And we just can’t have another Tampa, where Iowa is one of a small handful of states that clearly is not constructive to the Republican cause.”

In Tampa, at the 2012 RNC, 22 of Iowa’s 28 delegates cast their votes for Ron Paul, not GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Kaufmann contends the rebellion nearly cost Iowa its caucuses, which is why party leaders adopted rules binding delegates to vote for the nominee.

He said all but a couple of Iowa delegates get that. Stinemetz, Kaufmann insists, “doesn’t have a clue” and is simply looking for attention.

“Here’s the old Cedar County farm boy analysis of sincerity,” Kaufmann said. “If you are having that internal conversation to yourself, are you having small, quiet conversations with people you respect, or are you grabbing any microphone, issuing press releases, standardized, coming from a national office, and trying to get your name in print?”

Stinemetz said his role is different than Kaufmann’s.

“The Republican Party bosses have their job to do. And that’s to keep the delegates in line,” Stinemetz said. “I am more concerned about what this could do to my country. I’m an Iowan, so I’ll get hammered for it, for sure, but that takes precedence over the first-in-the-nation status, for me.”

State Sen. Randy Feenstra, a delegate from Hull, sees it Kaufmann’s way.

“Trump has won fair and square, this is our process. We worked through the process, the process is now over, and Trump won the most delegates. You can’t take that away from him because you may not like that person,” Feenstra said.

“I’m excited about his candidacy. I think he’s the guy maybe our country needs. He is not beholden to anyone and he speaks his mind,” Feenstra said.

Feenstra expects the GOP to emerge from Cleveland unified. He and other delegates I spoke with point to Thursday’s acceptance speech as an important chance for Trump to reintroduce himself to voters and change perceptions.

“You look back at when Ronald Reagan ran, he projected this image of I can do these things,” Feenstra said. “I think what everybody realized when Reagan went to the convention and spoke is this guy’s for real. I think we’ll see that with Trump.”

Delegate Ben Barringer, a software engineer from Northwood, is less optimistic.

“As far as bringing the whole country together and the whole party, that’s not going to happen no matter what happens at this convention,” Barringer said.

For me, Cleveland promises to be fascinating, but also surreal. Some of these Iowa Republicans, not all that long ago, were enthusiastically backing George W. Bush, who spoke of compassion in Spanish to immigrant audiences and ran on bringing honor and dignity back to the White House. Eight years ago, I was in St. Paul where they nominated John McCain, the former POW Trump says isn’t a hero. Although the excitement spawned by Sarah Palin at the 2008 RNC was a clue as to where we were headed.

I certainly understand Kaufmann’s role, and Schultz’s promise, and the necessity for a party to stick with its processes and rules. But this doesn’t feel like a business-as-usual moment. The risk is unusually high.

And yet, the Iowa Republican embrace of Trump has been striking, swift and strong. With remarkably little public reservation, these delegates are marching in to nominate the builder of walls, peddler of hats and hero of folks lurking in some very dark and dangerous corners of our politics. Delegates are bound to nominate a guy unbound by the rules of common decency. What about that massive pile of ill-chosen words, falsehoods, insults and incoherent policy prescriptions? Nothing to see here. Let’s make America great again.

The first thing I want to see when I get there is a Lake Erie tsunami forecast.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette

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