NEW YORK - Donald Trump avoided incendiary comments about Muslims and pivoted to economic issues in a speech to the Pennsylvania Republican Party on Friday afternoon, but he was interrupted several times by protesters, some who had crashed the event and others who had purchased tickets to the $1,000-per-plate luncheon.
Security officers at the Plaza Hotel quickly swarmed the demonstrators and wrestled violently with members of one group, trying to pull away a banner that read, "Islamaphobia and Arabphobia Are Violence."
For a change, it was Trump's audience and not the GOP presidential candidate who made the most noise at one of his events. He took the distractions in stride, asking his hecklers if they had purchased tickets.
The event was in the spotlight in part because of Trump's week - after his call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States drew worldwide response, a new poll showed him widening his lead among Republican voters - but also because of the occasion.
State GOP leaders invited him long ago to their kickoff luncheon for the annual Pennsylvania Society weekend in Manhattan. But Trump's lightning-rod rhetoric and surge in polls raised questions about who would attend and the kind of reception he would get.
Hundreds of people without tickets - protesters, onlookers, and reporters - waited behind barricades for Trump at the hotel's entrance, but the billionaire slipped unseen into the Plaza, which he once owned. Inside, many state political figures skipped the event, including legislative leaders still trying to pass a state budget and much of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation.
A few hundred people paid for lunch and a chance to hear Trump trot out attack lines against Hillary Clinton and President Obama, while also talking about his desire to boost U.S. manufacturing and bring back jobs from overseas.
At one point, he said he would like to use Apple computers made in America, not China. "America can be made greater than ever before," Trump said, according to one of a half-dozen attendees who described the speech to The Inquirer.
Jim Broussard, a professor at Lebanon Valley College and chairman of Citizens Against Higher Taxes, said the speech was short on the "outrageous things" that have helped keep Trump in the headlines.
"It was a much more toned-down Trump than he normally is," Broussard said.
To a crowd largely composed of Republican insiders, Trump did not discuss his proposed Muslim ban and said nothing about Syrian refugees, attendees said, though he discussed illegal immigration in passing. (At one point, an attendee said, Trump joked that Ford Motor Co. will have "the illegals drive the cars across the border" from a $2 billion manufacturing plant it is building in Mexico.)
He did not take questions.
The reaction was mixed. Some people seemed enthusiastic, but others applauded only politely, several attendees said.
Val DiGiorgio, chairman of the Chester County Republican Party and a presidential backer of Sen. Marco Rubio, was among the less enthused, though he conceded that Trump won a number of laughs. "It was really - as most of his speeches are - short on substance, and that's concerning," DiGiorgio said.
The protesters had their own messages to impart.
Judith Plaskow, 68, of New York, said she bought a ticket at the door with a $1,000 check - a check she hoped to later cancel. She was among a group of women ejected from the ballroom when they stood and started singing, "We are kind and welcoming people."
Asked why she attended, Plaskow said, "I feel ashamed to be an American right now. The level of hate speech that I'm hearing in the country right now, I find deeply, deeply disturbing."
Plaskow said she is a member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and has many Muslim friends.
Another member, Jordan Wouk, said he used a ticket purchased by another activist and was driven to bear witness against Trump. "I wanted to try to let people know that not everybody approves of Trump's hateful message," said Wouk, 67, of Manhattan.
Democrats had tried to capitalize on the event, with national party trying to tie several GOP House members to Trump's "hateful rhetoric." Democratic State Chairman Marcel Groen, in town for the Pennsylvania Society festivities, recounted his family's flight from the Netherlands as refugees after World War II. They settled in a one-room apartment in New York.
"Donald Trump stains the memory of everyone in America who welcomed and helped us," said Groen, of Montgomery County.
But the decision to host Trump also had become a point of angst for Pennsylvania Republicans. Some were thrilled to hear from the GOP front-runner; others were excited for the entertainment factor. But some worried that the divisive billionaire could hurt the party in a moderate state.
One GOP insider, who asked not to be named, complained that the event did not draw an unusually large crowd, so the party may have invited controversy without much upside.
Fred Anton, president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association, was more blunt. At a separate event in New York around the same time as the Plaza luncheon, Anton said Trump has the persona of a dictator. "That's the reason I'm not over there," he said.
For months, establishment Republican leaders had predicted that Trump, with his angry populist message, would fade. If anything, his double-digit lead in the polls has held steady or grown with each controversy.
Now there is something approaching panic in top national party circles, with voting set to begin with the Iowa caucuses Feb. 1.
At an event hosted by GOP consulting firm Quantum Communications, longtime GOP consultants were blunt about the possibility that Trump could be the party's nominee, or at least remain a factor by the time the convention rolls around.
"I'm handicapped by 50 years of experience, none of which seems to be relevant in this election," said Ed Rollins, a longtime national Republican consultant.
Many in the GOP worry that a Trump nomination could torpedo congressional Republicans running in moderate states, including Pennsylvania.
Jim Gerlach, a former congressman from Chester County, said it is too early to predict the impact, but added that if he were running, he would make sure to be visible within his district - and to keep the focus on his work so voters would "view me as totally independent of anything that's going on at the higher levels of the ticket."
Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Rob Gleason has said he had reached out to almost all the top-tier candidates to attend the luncheon, but Trump was the only one who would make it work in his schedule.
Gleason said he would have liked to have had Jeb Bush or Rubio as speakers, and added, "They're all draws."
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