Donald Trump has been running for president since June 2015, but Melania Trump's first campaign speech didn't come until this April, and it was only 90 seconds long. Taking the primetime stage in Cleveland on Monday night at the Republican National Convention, she truly introduced herself to America as Republicans gathered to support her husband. It all went according to plan, until it didn't.
The initial reaction from delegates was positive. Melania talked about the love she and Donald have for America and their family. She shed light on issues she cares about, like education. Debby McCarthy, a delegate from Massachusetts, told me, "I thought it was outstanding!" She appreciated Melania's discussion of patriotism and her attempt to reach more people. Lacy Anderson, a 36-year-old delegate from North Dakota, said she liked that Melania shared her personal story.
Republicans in Cleveland are more concerned with opposing Hillary Clinton than critiquing Melania's speech.
As night one ended, delegates were left with an image of Donald genuinely beaming at picture-perfect Melania, as "We Are the Champions" played. Two true "winners." That win, however, was quickly undone by news that Melania lifted parts of her speech from one Michelle Obama gave at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. While the internet is having a field day with the apparent plagiarism, Republicans in Cleveland are more concerned with opposing Hillary Clinton than critiquing Melania's speech.
The Perception of Melania Trump
Prior to Melania's big moment, I spoke to delegates at the convention, who didn't seem to know much about the woman who could be our next first lady. When I asked Jessica Fernandez, a 31-year-old Republican delegate from Florida, for her thoughts on Melania, she told me: "I don't have many."
Among these delegates, beauty and class topped the list of admirable Melania qualities. "What do you expect from Melania's speech?" I asked 65-year-old California delegate Noel Irwin Hentschel on Monday afternoon. "Oh, she's beautiful!" Noel told me.
Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, 55, a delegate from Oklahoma, had the same answer when I asked, "What do you think of Melania Trump?" "Well, she's beautiful."
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich's interview on Fox News on Monday afternoon demonstrated again that many Republicans first associate beauty with Melania and cite it as her primary virtue. "Melania is not only very, very attractive as a supermodel, but she's also living proof that Donald Trump is not anti-immigrant." The controversy around the speech won't change Melania's appearance.
In her speech, Melania also gave us insight into her personality. She said, "One of the many causes dear to my heart is helping children and women. You judge a society by how it treats its citizens. We must do our best to ensure that every child can live in comfort and security, with the best possible education." She also spoke about her immigrant experience and growing up in a communist country. "On July 28, 2006, I was very proud to become a citizen of the United States — the greatest privilege on planet Earth." The rabidly patriotic crowd went wild for that. Delegate Fernandez agreed there is value in Melania's background. "She would add a lot to the White House as an immigrant."
Contempt For the Current First Lady
What would the delegates like a First Lady Melania Trump to do? "Maybe Melania can make school lunches great again," quipped Fernandez with a critical nod to First Lady Michelle Obama's controversial effort to make school lunches more nutritious. Ironically, delegates I spoke to thought Melania was in a league of her own compared to Michelle. Oklahoma delegate Vuillemont-Smith told me, "I think Michelle's been a big disappointment as the first lady." Apparently unimpressed with or unaware of Michelle's efforts to reach Americans in new ways, including on social media, she continued, "I don't think she's been engaged with the public and I don't think she's made a whole lot of effort to try to be liked."
Rationalizing the Controversy
The extreme distaste for the Obamas and Hillary will likely trump any concern over plagiarism. The official Trump reaction to the controversy also sheds light on how the base could rationalize the similarities. Here's Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort on CNN saying Melania simply used "common words and phrases."
Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort: Melania Trump's speech used "common words and phrases." https://t.co/lkuwa1KM6O— CNN (@CNN) July 19, 2016
"This is, once again, an example of when a woman threatens Hillary Clinton how she seeks to demean her and take her down," Manafort said with a straight face. It's not clear how this has anything to do with Hillary, who has kept quiet on the drama so far. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appeared on the Today show to say 93 percent of the speech was completely different than Michelle's speech, so no big deal.
While many Trump fans will likely buy into these rationalizations, there's no doubt this will be a defining moment for a woman we didn't know much about before.