GOP convention dominated by political theater

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CLEVELAND -- Volcanic political forces unleashed by Donald Trump's takeover of the Republican Party erupted Wednesday in one of most explosive nights of political theater witnessed at a party convention in the modern era.

The Republican presidential nominee and his primary rival, Ted Cruz, staged a battle for the soul of the party, tearing open internal divides the Trump campaign has been meticulously trying heal for three tumultuous days.

The convention program in Cleveland on Wednesday night was supposed to be all about Trump's vice presidential nominee, Mike Pence, pulling the party together behind Trump to march on Hillary Clinton and her Democrats at the start of the fall campaign.

But Cruz's hotly anticipated speech, in which he refused to publicly endorse Trump, in a staggering show of defiance shattered party unity and reignited the GOP's internal civil war.

"Don't stay home in November," Cruz told delegates. "Stand and speak and vote your conscience," he said, clearly implying that those conservatives who distrust Trump did not have to vote for him, but should back other Republicans in down-ballot races.

As the convention crowd realized Cruz had come to bury Trup and not to praise him, a wave of anger electricity pulsated through the arena. Cruz struggled to finish his address amid a seething, angry chorus of boos, jeers and chants of "Trump, Trump." The GOP nominee, meanwhile, took the situation into his own hands, dramatically entering the arena to sit with his family, stealing the attention of the crowd from Cruz.

It was an unorthodox show of strength that sent a clear message that Trump -- not Cruz and his conservative true believers -- was now in charge of the GOP.

Cruz's Heidi was escorted out of the convention hall amid scenes of bedlam and recrimination and the Texas Senator was reportedly barred from the executive suite occupied by the conservative movement's billionaire financier Sheldon Adelson.

Cruz's behavior immediately sparked angry reactions from Trump supporters.

The billionaire's lawyer, Michael Cohen said on CNN that "the only way to describe it is political suicide."

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the Texas senator's behavior was "selfish" and said Cruz had broken a pledge taken by all the candidates to support the eventual party nominee.

The sensational events ran far deeper than a renewal of the bad blood that has long festered between Cruz and Trump, who mocked Heidi Cruz's looks on the campaign trail and even accused the senator's father of having a role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. They were a sign that the GOP is still locked in a crisis and that it remains divided between the ideological true believers of the conservative movement who back Cruz and the grass roots insurgents who fell hard for Trump.

In an earlier dash of showmanship that emphasized his stature and flair for the dramatic, Trump touched down in Cleveland on his personal airplane earlier Wednesday and then flitted between the city's skyscrapers on his helicopter.

"I am convinced what begins in Cleveland will end in the White House," Pence told Trump after he stepped off the helicopter to greet his children to the soundtrack of the movie "Air Force One."

By Stephen Collinson