- Associated Press - Friday, May 6, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina Republican Party leaders are anxious to increase harmony within the ranks at this weekend’s state convention heading into what points to a perilous - or at least extraordinary - presidential election year for the GOP.

In the week leading up to Friday’s convention opening in Greensboro, party activists removed Chairman Hasan Harnett from his job after party leaders accused him of a power grab and trying to break the state party’s computer system. And party outsider Donald Trump, a divisive candidate nationally, became the GOP presumptive presidential nominee.

Harnett’s replacement, former U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes, is preaching unity now that Trump’s path to the nomination is cleared by the other candidates dropping out of the race. He’s also trying to mend fences with activists aligned with the tea party movement who helped get Harnett elected chairman last June.

“Seventy-two percent is pretty good start for unity,” said Hayes, referring to the percentage of Executive Committee members who chose him to succeed Harnett. “Lots of people, folks that had other ideas, have come around - they’re working with us. We’re there for them. It’s going to be good.”

But fewer than 300 people voted on Harnett’s dismissal and the election of Hayes, who previously served as chairman for two years through mid-2013. There will be many more to convince with 1,300 delegates scheduled to attend the three-day convention. Scheduled speakers include Gov. Pat McCrory and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, both seeking re-election in November.

Hayes’ long political history makes him a symbol of the party’s establishment.

“With the establishment in North Carolina’s Republican Party taking the party leadership back over, it’s going to be incumbent upon them to make a very concerted effort to reach out to the grass-roots activists,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury. “Just saying that the party is united isn’t going to make it so. There’s going to have to be a lot of give and take between the two sides.”

Trump’s expected nomination will prove to be such a test.

The departures of Ted Cruz and John Kasich this week from the Republican presidential race after Trump’s primary victory in Indiana means a floor fight Saturday over choosing 30 of North Carolina’s delegates to the national convention is less likely to occur.

“It’s good news when you have your nominee,” Hayes said.

Hayes and state Sen. Ron Rabin, R-Harnett, an early Trump supporter, focused upon opposing a common Republican political enemy - likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or now-longshot Bernie Sanders. Rabin also tried this week at a news conference to link Trump to Ronald Reagan, both of whom he called populists.

“People who want to follow through and get Washington fixed so that they listen to what’s going on and pay attention to what we say will now come together (and) support Mr. Trump,” Rabin said.

Trump’s public statements have been considered refreshing by some and offensive by others.

“He’s gone after and insulted group after group,” North Carolina Democratic Party spokesman Dave Miranda said. “There is a lot of division now within the GOP, and Trump sort of exemplifies that.”

Hayes said it’s on Trump’s shoulders to address the criticism.

“The burden is on him, I think, as well. He has to be the … statesman,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, another convention speaker. “He needs to be the person that has a desire to bring the party together for the common good.”

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