With Wisconsin Unrest as Backdrop, Republicans Intensify Law-and-Order Message

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WASHINGTON — Republicans used the third night of their convention on Wednesday to amplify warnings of violence and lawlessness under Democratic leadership, trying to capitalize on the worsening unrest in Wisconsin to reclaim moderate voters who might be reluctant to hand President Trump a second term.

The party also made appeals to social conservatives with attacks on abortion and accusations that the Democrats and their nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., were “Catholics in name only.” And they intensified their effort to lift Mr. Trump’s standing among women with testimonials vouching for him as empathetic and as a champion of women in the workplace — from women who work for him, a number of female lawmakers and his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump.

Speaking hours after Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin called in the National Guard to restore order to Kenosha, Wis., where a police officer shot a Black man this week, numerous Republicans led by Vice President Mike Pence assailed Mr. Biden for what they claimed was his tolerance of the vandalism that had grown out of racial justice protests, asserting that the country would not be safe with him as president.

“Last week, Joe Biden didn’t say one word about the violence and chaos engulfing cities across this country,” said Mr. Pence, standing before an array of American flags at Fort McHenry in Baltimore and vowing: “We will have law and order on the streets of this country for every American of every race and creed and color.”

Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, a strong supporter of the president, said that places like Seattle, Portland, Ore., and other cities run by Democrats were being “overrun by violent mobs.” She likened the violence to the lead-up of the Civil War and asserted that people “are left to fend for themselves.”

Ms. Noem invoked a young Abraham Lincoln, claiming he had been “alarmed by the disregard for the rule of law throughout the country.”

“He was concerned for the people that had seen their property destroyed, their families attacked and their lives threatened or even taken away,” she said, adding “Sound familiar?”

The intense focus on the rioting amounted to an acknowledgment by Republicans that they must reframe the election to make urban unrest the central theme and shift attention away from the deaths and illnesses of millions of people from the coronavirus.

Mr. Pence, the head of the government’s coronavirus task force, depicted Mr. Trump as a heroic leader in the crisis and cast the federal response as a success, even as the U.S. death toll approached 180,000 this week. Skirting the most complex and trying issues of the pandemic, Mr. Pence, calling America “a nation of miracles,” teased the prospect of a vaccine in the coming months and praised Mr. Trump for what he called “the greatest national mobilization since World War II.”

Still, Mr. Pence was the first speaker over three nights to fully grapple with the devastating impact of the virus. He conceded the nation was enduring “a time of testing,” alluded to a “fog of challenging times” and even repurposed Mr. Trump’s slogan to acknowledge the country’s trial. “We will make America great again — again,” he said.

Mr. Pence’s somber language about the pandemic was quickly overtaken by images of him, his wife and the president and first lady shaking hands along a crowded rope line at the fort, with neither the two couples nor any of their supporters wearing masks.

A consistent feature of the speeches by close Trump associates was the implication — seemingly aimed at voters put off by the president’s personality — that he was a different and more sympathetic character in private than he appeared to be in public. Casting himself as a unique authority on Mr. Trump’s persona, Mr. Pence told viewers that he had “seen him when the cameras are off,” and that he believed Mr. Trump was a man of principle

Others also provided praise intended to soften Mr. Trump’s image.

Kayleigh McEnany, the cable pundit turned White House press secretary described having received a concerned phone call from the president after she had a preventive mastectomy in 2018. Citing that experience, Ms. McEnany said Mr. Trump “stands by Americans with pre-existing conditions” — an attempt to substitute a personal story for a factual accounting of Mr. Trump’s support for undoing the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with existing ailments.

“I want my daughter to grow up in President Donald Trump’s America,” Ms. McEnany said, in yet another effort to address the president’s unpopularity with women.

Kellyanne Conway, the departing White House adviser who helped steer Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, asked voters to see Mr. Trump as a champion of women in government. She said he “insists that we are on equal footing with the men” — overlooking the overwhelmingly male upper ranks of the Trump administration, and the president’s vehement attacks on women he counts as his adversaries, including lawmakers and reporters.

“A woman in a leadership role can still seem novel,” Ms. Conway said, recalling how Mr. Trump installed her as his third and final campaign manager four years ago. “Not so for President Trump.”

The third night of the Republicans’ convention was yet another swerve in their approach: A bitterly negative kickoff night on Monday gave way on Tuesday to a soft-focus variety show that used the powers of Mr. Trump’s office to stage various events aimed at humanizing the president. From the opening hour of the convention on Wednesday, the evening appeared to be something of a synthesis of the two previous nights, with a dark message of warning conveyed largely by women and a few young people.

The jagged course of the Republican message this week has yielded myriad personal attacks on Mr. Biden and much praise for Mr. Trump, but there has been a scattershot dimension to the whole affair. Speakers have alternated between casting Mr. Trump as an iron-fisted champion of law and order and as a kindly and merciful friend to offenders; they have similarly veered between depicting Mr. Biden as a hardhearted proponent of mass incarceration and as an ally of rioters and criminals.

On Wednesday, an evening of stark warnings about incipient social chaos preceded Mr. Pence’s chiding of Mr. Biden for having described the Trump era as a “season of darkness,” and his arguing that the country deserved an optimistic leader.

The criticism of Mr. Biden, the former vice president, has been harsh. Republicans have mocked his faith; attacked his family and personal ethics; derided his long service in Washington; cast him as a creature of the past; and criticized his cautious campaign style and his penchant for verbal miscues, including clumsy remarks about race for which Mr. Biden has apologized. The most consistent strain of criticism has been about Mr. Biden’s alliance with the left wing of the Democratic Party, but even that has not amounted to the kind of intensely concentrated attack that Republicans carried out against Hillary Clinton four years ago.

For Mr. Pence, the appearance in Baltimore represented a rare opportunity for the self-effacing vice president to take the political foreground, and perhaps to make an implicit argument that Republicans should embrace him as an heir to Mr. Trump. Mr. Pence has already been taking quiet steps to broaden his political circle, including holding luncheons with political consultants at the Trump Hotel and the Naval Observatory, ahead of an anticipated 2024 campaign.

Mr. Pence faced a complicated but hardly unfamiliar balancing act in his appearance: He has been called upon frequently to navigate the relationship between a divisive president with few close ties to the traditional Republican Party, and parts of the conservative coalition that have periodically shown unease about Mr. Trump’s approach to politics.

The most difficult task looming for Mr. Pence — during not only the convention, but also the remaining months of the campaign — might be to square his own work as the leader of the federal government’s coronavirus task force with Mr. Trump’s insistent efforts to minimize the virus as a factor in the election. Coordinating federal aid to states has perhaps been Mr. Pence’s most important role since assuming the vice presidency, but he has routinely found his private advice and promises to governors upended by Mr. Trump’s public pronouncements.

Neither Mr. Pence nor other speakers acknowledged any regrets about the coronavirus response, let alone any misgivings about Mr. Trump’s role. He was depicted as a tower of strength. Ms. Noem, who last month greeted Mr. Trump in her state with a replica of Mount Rushmore that included his likeness, hailed the president, excoriated Democrats and repeatedly invoked American history. “Our founding principles are under attack,” Ms. Noem said.

A potential 2024 presidential candidate who has minimized the threat of the coronavirus, she said Americans would not be the “subjects of an elite class of so-called experts” and embellished the recent unrest plaguing some communities. “Democratic-run cities are being overrun by violent mobs,” she said.

In addition to Ms. Noem, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa and Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the youngest Republican woman in Congress, were among the lawmakers who spoke on Wednesday.

Ms. Stefanik, who became a favorite of conservative news media during Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial, accused Mr. Biden of supporting “far-left socialist policies,” another sign of Republicans’ determination to cast the Democrats’ firmly moderate standard-bearer as outside the mainstream.

Some of the participants on Wednesday sought to recast Mr. Trump’s image and sow fears of Mr. Biden in the same speech.

Lara Trump used her remarks to boast of women’s success in the Trump economy, glossing over the coronavirus entirely. She also held up her own role, helping run Mr. Trump’s campaign in her native North Carolina in 2016, before rattling off a number of female appointees in the administration. But then she abruptly picked up on the other theme of evening, lamenting the “violent mobs” she said had taken over American cities.

“Joe Biden will not do what it takes to maintain order,” Ms. Trump said.

In addition to the array of women who appeared on Wednesday, Republicans turned to some other nontraditional Republican figures in an effort to reach beyond Mr. Trump’s older and heavily white base by appealing to younger and more diverse constituencies.

Representative Lee Zeldin of New York, one of the few Jewish Republicans in Congress, spoke, as did 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn, a House candidate in North Carolina who won a surprise victory in a primary this year.

Mr. Cawthorn, who uses a wheelchair, spoke about his vision for a new town square in American life and concluded his remarks by standing with the help of a walker. “For our republic for which I stand,” Mr. Cawthorn said as he rose, “one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

Richard Grenell, who served as Mr. Trump’s ambassador to Germany and was briefly the acting director of national intelligence, heaped praise on the president’s foreign policy. Yet after recently recording a video hailing Mr. Trump as “the most pro-gay president in American history,” Mr. Grenell, who is gay, made no mention of L.G.B.T. rights when addressing a broader audience on Wednesday night that included millions of social conservatives.

The Republican messaging, however, was increasingly being delivered on a split-screen with the growing unrest in Wisconsin. On Wednesday, Mr. Evers deployed 500 National Guard troops to support law enforcement in Kenosha, where protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake have led to arson and property destruction.

On Wednesday, the N.B.A. postponed several playoff games after the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted a game against the Orlando Magic in protest of the shooting.

Mr. Trump has criticized Mr. Evers, a Democrat, for not acting more aggressively; Mr. Biden has carefully sought to express outrage over the shooting of Mr. Blake while also condemning the unrest.

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