DENVER — If Donald Trump fails to win over conservatives this weekend in Denver, it could be a cold July for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee in Cleveland.
Mr. Trump is slated to speak Friday to an audience of 4,000 at the Western Conservative Summit, the nation’s largest gathering of conservatives outside of Washington, in what is widely viewed as a dress rehearsal for the Republican National Convention.
The agenda isn’t packed with Trump die-hards. Far from it: Among those at the Colorado Convention Center are #NeverTrump antagonists such as Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, commentator Erick Erickson and Truth Revolt’s Ben Shapiro, setting the stage for a Republican rumble in the Rockies.
“This is clearly a test case for Trump, a sort of warm-up for Cleveland,” said Denver-based political analyst Floyd Ciruli. “If he can’t walk out of the Western Conservative Summit, in my view, with a good welcome and a reasonable degree of unity, then I think it bodes very, very poorly for about three weeks from now.”
The event also features prominent Trump backers such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a summit regular who typically receives a warm reception, and “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson. Closely watched will be a speech by Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, who has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick.
While tension between the pro and con Trump factions is expected to run high, the three-day conference also is an opportunity for conservatives to put aside their differences, said summit organizer Jeff Hunt.
“I consider this a coming-together moment, to be honest,” said Mr. Hunt, who took over in November as head of the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University, which sponsors the event.
“We’re all kind of on the same team. I’ve got friends on both sides of this issue who are very passionate and good committed conservatives on either side of this issue, and I didn’t want to exclude any of them. I wanted them all to be able to come,” Mr. Hunt said.
The conference has broken its own attendance record every year.
Many of those appearing at the seventh annual event could be classified as more anti-Clinton than pro-Trump. One of them is Carly Fiorina, a former Republican presidential hopeful who has said she wants to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton but has not explicitly endorsed Mr. Trump.
“I’m happy to have them make their cases,” Mr. Hunt said. “But in the end, I’m a pragmatist when it comes to elections. We’re at a place now where it’s between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and we need to be on the same team.”
Anything can happen, of course, but it’s hard to imagine Mr. Erickson, founder of RedState and the Resurgent, deciding at the end of the three-day summit that Mr. Trump isn’t such a bad guy after all.
As recently as Thursday, Mr. Erickson blasted evangelical leaders for endorsing the real-estate mogul’s presidential bid, saying any pastor who uses the prestige of the pulpit to do so is an “idol worshipper.”
The same day, he urged Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus to renounce Mr. Trump and support efforts to back another presidential candidate.
“I don’t envy Reince’s position, but it’s time for the grown-ups to step up and admit what we all know. Trump’s campaign is bleeding the GOP dry, and voters are abandoning ship,” Mr. Erickson said. “He will cost us the Senate, perhaps the House, and his impact will be felt down-ballot.”
Another speaker, radio talk show host Dennis Prager, criticized Mr. Trump during the primary campaign but has since urged conservatives to vote for him.
“I, unlike my friends, could not live with my conscience if I voted to help the America-destroying left win the presidency in any way,” Mr. Prager said in a May 24 Townhall.com column. “I just don’t understand how anyone who understands the threat the left and the Democrats pose on America will refuse to vote for the only person who can stop them.”
Appearing in Colorado is also significant for Mr. Trump in light of the state Republican caucus debacle in April. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas won all 34 delegates, prompting the billionaire to accuse Colorado Republicans of running a “rigged” and “crooked” system, while Cruz delegates countered that the Trump campaign was disorganized and barely visible.
Mr. Cruz was invited to the summit but opted not to attend, although he has spoken in past years. Mr. Hunt said he was “deeply disappointed” by the senator’s absence.
“I made that very clear that we wanted him here and he’d be warmly received,” said Mr. Hunt. “I just think it’s hard to get into the mind of a candidate after they’ve lost what they’re trying to do. He’s done a handful of small events, but I think he’s kind of staying out of the limelight.”
Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House, who received thousands of threatening messages after the caucuses from irate Trump supporters, nonetheless congratulated Mr. Trump after he won enough delegates to all but clinch the nomination with the May 3 Indiana primary.
“I think the picture that’s going to capture what I would hope to come out of it is when Steve House, the chairman of the state party, introduces Donald Trump, and we get that handshake,” Mr. Hunt said. “My hope is that we get through that, we get the handshake, and that the past is the past, we’re here to take on Hillary Clinton and advance conservatism.”
Also scheduled to speak during the three-day gathering are radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, pastor John MacArthur, The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson and Stephen Moore, Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, tea party leader Jenny Beth Martin, and El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, who won Colorado’s Republican primary for Senate on Tuesday.