CLEVELAND – Adam Gilbertson, an Iraq war veteran now traversing this heavily guarded city with Minnesota's delegation to the Republican National Convention, said Monday that he got the same advice from multiple people when he told them he was headed here after a violent few weeks in the United States.
"The overwhelming comment was, 'stay safe,' " said Gilbertson, of Lakeville. "It's really disheartening to hear that when you're going to a political convention in America."
The theme of Monday's convention session was "Make America Safe Again," which has risen as one of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump's chief campaign messages especially after multiple recent instances of high-profile violence and instability both in the U.S. and abroad. Fatal police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, a terrorist attack in France and an attempted military coup in Turkey have left many on edge as Republicans and then Democrats meet to anoint their nominees.
Minnesota Republicans, staying in a Holiday Inn that's nonetheless under watch by a group of local police officers, hope Trump can leverage voters' desire for law and order into ballot box mojo.
"We are in dire need in this country of a really strong leader, and I think Donald Trump can be that for us," said Becky Hall, a delegate from Duluth. "A lot of Americans are very worried about our own security here, and I think they find comfort in seeing him as strong on national security."
The opening night inside Quicken Loans Arena featured a speaker lineup who hit themes of domestic security and projecting strength abroad. Extolling Trump's virtues were former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe," Giuliani said. "They fear for their children. They fear for themselves. They fear for our police officers who are being targeted."
The campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton has sought to portray Trump as too unpredictable and capricious to lead the U.S. in a violent and uncertain time. "Donald Trump's temperament is a danger to national security," read a Clinton campaign news release.
With support for Trump fairly low among Minnesota's 74-member group of delegates and alternates, some openly questioned whether Trump is in a good position to lead the nation in a turbulent time.
"I honestly don't know," Gilbertson, who supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, said when asked what he thought Trump could do as president to curb the outbreaks of violence.
"From my experience in the Middle East, power requires clarity," Gilbertson went on. "While people may not like that all the time from Trump, there is a clarity in his statements. I think that could be helpful to our country."
Barb Sutter, an alternate from Bloomington, has come around on Trump despite lingering reservations. She presumes further outbreaks of violence will help Trump.
"Sadly, I do think with every occurrence that we're hearing on the news, that his numbers will rise," Sutter said. "It's not how I'd want someone's numbers to rise, but there you have it."
The Minnesota group's divisions over Trump came into play Monday during a brief, chaotic floor dispute over the convention's rules. While any chance of blocking Trump from the nomination seems to have vanished, a number of Minnesota delegates supported a measure to force a convention floor vote on the rules. It failed amid a confusing few minutes of shouts and raucous demonstration, with delegates from Minnesota and elsewhere complaining they had been railroaded.
Minnesota Republican leaders said it is time for the party to get behind Trump.
"Folks, it's time to unify," said U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, the only Republican member of Congress from Minnesota to join the Cleveland festivities. "We have to stop pointing the finger at each other and start pointing in the same direction."
Some delegates, like Hall, were prepared to back Trump. "Finally at this point, it's exciting to see so many getting behind him," said Hall, adding that she has warmed up to the candidate after her first choice, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, dropped out of the race.
Emmer said Trump is a better choice than Clinton for law-and-order voters. He said Trump's selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is what people should look to to get an idea of the way a Trump administration would lead in difficult times.
Still, neither Emmer nor Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey offered any suggestions when asked what policies Trump or a Republican Congress could pursue to reduce violence like what's been seen in recent days in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
"Right now is time for calm, holding our tongues rather than speaking out, and I think we have to let the process work," Emmer said.
At a breakfast meeting on Monday at the Holiday Inn, Minnesota delegates heard from National Rifle Association Managing Director Millie Hallow that the group is all in for Trump and its leaders believe they can help influence the outcome in swing states.
"I think we can make a difference of two, three to four percent in key battleground states," Hallow said.
With heavy protests planned, the streets of Cleveland near the convention were crawling with officers. Anyone headed inside the hall was subjected to a time-consuming security gauntlet.
Asked if safety fears made him regret his decision to attend, Gilbertson said no way.
"I feel like I need to be here," Gilbertson said. "Whether it's safe or not is another question."