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Trump candidacy looms large at state GOP convention

An elephant dominated the room hosting the New York State Republican Convention in Buffalo Friday, and it wasn’t the traditional pachyderm that symbolizes the GOP.

Donald J. Trump might have been far away on the national campaign trail, but he was all the buzz of the statewide conclave staged at the Marriott HarborCenter. From hallway banter to formal speeches, Trump overshadowed most of the convention business, eclipsing even potential gubernatorial candidates and the nomination of Wendy Long to face incumbent Sen. Charles E. Schumer in November.

That’s what happens when you dominate the presidential campaign landscape so completely as Trump has this week.

One of Trump’s chief cheerleaders at Friday’s convention proved to be Buffalo’s Carl P. Paladino, afforded time on the podium as a potential challenger to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2018. He delivered a stinging rebuke to the media, Washington and the “establishment” while extolling the virtues of Trump.

“It’s about a desperate Washington elite and a media that’s clueless on how to handle this situation,” Paladino told about 300 Republicans gathered from across the state. “He’s awakened America’s middle class; he’s awakened the silent majority.”

Paladino, the 2010 GOP candidate for governor, seemed to elicit some of the convention’s loudest cheers as he called on New York Republicans to rally behind Trump.

“To be neutral is cowardly. We don’t have time to be neutral,” he said. “This is a native New Yorker. This is our guy. Stand up.”

But part of the convention’s back story is those who did not stand up. Sources close to Trump and anti-Trump camps alike said efforts were underway to seek a convention endorsement for the Manhattan billionaire, especially after his string of Super Tuesday victories and recent endorsements by major county chairmen like Nicholas A. Langworthy of Erie County and Thomas V. Dadey Jr. of Onondaga County.

But the sources say the votes simply were not there. Rather than risk a high-profile convention effort for Trump that might flop, the sources said the Trump dynamic will now have to play out on its own.

“There’s been an unwritten policy,” said one top party insider who asked not to be identified. “Keep New York in play and let the rank-and-file voters elect.”

Still, major Trump supporters like Paladino and Rep. Chris Collins of Clarence were feeling good about their man’s progress.

“We’ve picked up as many as 15 county chairs while we’ve been here,” Paladino said at the convention’s end. “This has been a very, very successful convention.”

He would not say when the New York support for Trump will manifest itself, other than he expects it soon.

And Long, the new senatorial nominee, told The Buffalo News she proudly supports Trump, injecting yet another dose of his political dynamic into Friday’s proceedings.

“I’ve been on the Trump team for a long time,” she said.

Collins, meanwhile, appears to be emerging as a national advocate for Trump.

“I think I’ve become a de facto surrogate for Washington, D.C. There’s nobody else,” he said. “I have said I’ll do anything they want me to do.”

Collins also addressed the gathering in between appearances on Fox News Channel, one of three speakers invited to speak on behalf of their presidential choice. He tore into Mitt Romney, following the 2012 presidential candidate’s denunciation of Trump on Thursday, calling Romney a “lousy candidate” who has energized the Trump base by speaking for the “establishment.”

“Mitt Romney has engaged the Republican establishment even more,” Collins said. “The Republican establishment does not speak for mainstream Republicans.”

A former supporter of Jeb Bush’s failed presidential bid, Collins said he was naturally attracted to Trump following Bush’s withdrawal from the race.

“I looked to see who was legitimately left standing,” he said. “I saw a born leader, a winner, someone with vision. That’s Donald Trump.”

Gordon Humphries, the former senator from New Hampshire, also made a presidential pitch. But he praised John Kasich, pointing to the Ohio governor’s economic accomplishments.

He said Kasich is emerging as Trump’s main alternative.

“The dynamic has changed,” Humphries told The News. “Marco Rubio was the darling of the establishment but has reached his plateau. John will certainly win Ohio … and the momentum will be in his favor.”

And while no one spoke in favor of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Broome County Chairman Bijoy Datta praised Rubio as mirroring his own family’s immigrant roots and as best equipped to handle national security issues.

“He understands what the threats to our people’s interests are,” he said. “We are less secure than when President Obama took office, and Marco will change that.”

The convention – the first GOP conclave in Buffalo since 2000 and only the second since 1962 – also served as a bully pulpit for six potential gubernatorial candidates in 2018. All delivered speeches.

They included Paladino; businessman Harry Wilson, the 2010 candidate for comptroller; former Pataki administration official John Cahill, the 2014 candidate for attorney general; Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, the 2014 candidate for governor; Rep. Chris Gibson of the Hudson Valley, a decorated Iraq War veteran; and Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro.