A few takeaways:
(1) Cruz is the story tonight. He arrived to surprisingly prolonged and generous applause, held the crowd in rapt attention for the vast majority of his address, and scored with line after line. His tone and message were excellent. And then it happened. Having congratulated Trump for securing the nomination right out of the gate, Cruz closed by urging Republicans not to stay home in November, exhorted them to back pro-freedom and constitutionalist candidates "up and down" the ballot, and advised them to vote their conscience in November. Once that third line was uttered -- perceived by many as a dogwhistle to the 'Never Trump' faction -- it became clear that a formal endorsement wasn't forthcoming, and the boos rained down. The opprobrium, reportedly egged on by Trump floor captains, reached a crescendo as the Texan left the stage. The Senator was angrily, almost violently, confronted by donors. His besieged wife had to be escorted out of the hall by security. Prominent Trump allies ripped into Cruz's performance in public. And the narrative was set: Nasty discord. Disunity.
But there are a few things I don't understand. Trump invited Cruz to speak here without extracting a promise of an endorsement. Multiple reports indicated that Cruz would not endorse. The RNC and Trump campaign saw and apparently rubber-stamped Cruz's prepared remarks. They knew what he was going to say. And he said it. Was Ted Cruz setting himself up as a torch-carrier for conservatism with an eye toward 2020? Almost certainly. Was his parsed fence-straddling on the non-endorsement calculated and self-serving? Probably. But did he do anything unconscionable? No. And if "congratulations, please vote in November, fight for freedom, and vote your conscience" was truly a rage-worthy betrayal, then event organizers should have asserted their legitimate authority and rescinded the invite. They could have mumbled something about a scheduling conflict, then whispered later to a few reporters that Cruz was refusing to endorse. After all, Trump had insulted his wife's appearance and suggested his father had a hand in a presidential assassination, so the two former rivals just decided to part ways. Instead, another unhelpful spectacle -- piled atop Monday's floor fight and yesterday's plagiarism saga. Self-defeating and baffling.
(2) Mike Pence did well. He was likable and build a solid case for his running mate. His smiling, humble, self-deprecating performance laid waste to Democrats' dumb "wild-eyed extremist!" caricature of him. That's the good news for Team Trump. Pence showed why he was a reliable pick. The bad news is that the Hoosier's solid performance will be mostly buried beneath the Cruz rubble.
(3) Eric Trump faced the tall and unenviable task of directly following the Cruz display, and trying to coax the crowd out of its angry daze. And was forced to attempt to do so with the LED ribbons encircling the arena flickering distractingly. He did fine under difficult circumstances.
(4) Newt raced through his remarks, perhaps realizing that the schedule was running behind, and not wanting to big-foot the Vice Presidential nominee. He seemed under the weather, too. His speech wasn't the stemwinder many people were expecting, but his attempt to "clarify" what Cruz had just said with the best spin available was a laudable and fairly savvy salvage attempt.
(5) If the goal is of a major party convention are to highlight party unity and convey a coherent message to undecided voters, the 2016 RNC has been a disaster. Much like the video boards inside the arena tonight, the party appears to be on the fritz. That doesn't mean that Trump can't get a bounce out of Cleveland. In fact, even as many pundits may predict that he won't, I'd bet he will. But this has not been the relatively smooth, consensus-building showcase Republicans wanted. Not by a long shot. Either way, he can help his own cause tomorrow night by delivering in the moment to which the entire week is building.