Conservatives brace for GOP platform battle in Cleveland

While Republicans work through their issues with Donald Trump as their standard bearer, the presumptive presidential nominee and conservatives could be headed for a convention showdown over what the party stands for -- and the possibility Trump may try to tweak the party platform in his own image.

And while Trump has made no public moves to do so at this point, that doesn't mean conservative warriors won't be ready in case he does.

“I have one goal now, and it is simple -- to get as many solid, constitutional conservatives to Cleveland and onto the platform and rules committees,” Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King told

The platform, in the GOP's own words, is a document outlining "who we are and what we believe." The language can be fiercely contested, and the possibility of such a debate may be driving ex-candidate Ted Cruz's push to ensure his delegate allies go to the convention. King is one of those Cruz delegates who plans to be on the floor, fighting for a conservative platform.

“I have not yet seen a real effort to change the platform. But my point from the beginning is that we have to be prepared,” he said.

Another Cruz supporter, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, reportedly sent an email asserting it was “imperative that we fill the Rules and Platform Committees with strong conservative voices like yours.”

The concerns reflect the broader tension in the party between Trump and stalwart conservatives not quite convinced he's one of them. Recognizing the need to assuage such concerns, Trump dispatched campaign chairman Paul Manafort to Capitol Hill on Thursday for a series of meetings with Republican Party leaders.

“He suggested that there weren’t going to be any changes to the party platform,” Rep. Scott DesJarlais told BuzzFeed News.

The Tennessee Republican, a Trump endorser, added there “was good two-way dialogue” on issues. Manafort also met with Cruz supporter Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Senate aides.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who has tried to smooth over tensions in the party over Trump's primary victory, has offered similar assurances the platform will not be substantially changed in July.

"I don't think Donald Trump is interested in rewriting the platform of the Republican Party," he told The Associated Press last week.

The Trump campaign did not respond to questions from on whether it planned to seek any changes.

But Trump's rhetoric and the party platform adopted in 2012 would appear sharply at odds in some areas.

On trade, for example, the 2012 platform states, “Free Trade Agreements negotiated with friendly democracies since President Reagan’s trailblazing pact with Israel in 1985 facilitated the creation of nearly ten million jobs supported by our exports.”

Trump has blasted trade deals like NAFTA, and just hours after Manafort worked Capitol Hill, Trump said at a fundraiser for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: " We’re losing $500 billion in trade with China. Who the hell cares if there’s a trade war?"

He rebuffed criticism from “very conservative ideologues,” stressing that he is “a free trader, but I’m only a free trader if we make good deals.”

On entitlements like Medicare, meanwhile, the platform says: “We must restructure the twentieth century entitlement state so the missions of important programs can succeed in the twenty-first century.”

Yet even before he officially jumped in the race, Trump tweeted last May that he was “the first & only potential GOP candidate to state there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid.”

The question is whether Trump tries to make these positions part of the official party mission statement.

“How Donald Trump approaches the debate over the platform will send a very clear message to the grassroots about just how conservative he really is and how serious he is about uniting the party,” said the Heritage Foundation's Lee Edwards, who has attended more than a dozen party conventions.

Edwards said conservatives also “will want to have strongest pro-life plank possible. How [Trump] responds will be a key test about how accommodating he can be on other issues.”

Trump indeed has expressed a willingness to change the platform to include abortion exceptions in the case of rape, incest and the life of the mother.

“Yes, I would. Absolutely, for the three exceptions, I would. I would leave it for the life of the mother, but I would absolutely have the three exceptions,” Trump said during an April appearance on NBC News’ “Today" show.

Like Trump, Republican nominees John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 also stated support for those three exceptions, but neither sought to change the language of the platform.

While delegates will not arrive in Cleveland until July, the process of selecting members of the platform committee and drafting the platform itself is well underway.

According to the party rules, each state nominates two people to serve as members of that committee.

As the convention draws closer, a website and online surveys will be used to gather feedback on the platform, according to convention spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski. The committee members will meet the week of July 11 to complete the drafting, and release the document at the beginning of the convention.

It will eventually be voted on and adopted, in some form.

Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and principal co-author of the annual Almanac of American Politics, suggested most of the document will not be contentious. “While there are real differences and fissures on policy like trade and the direction of American foreign policy, I don’t see all of those becoming matters of debate in the platform. It is a non-binding document,” he said.

The platform may be purely symbolic, but Iowa's King said it represents the belief system of the Republican Party.

"These are principles important to the millions of conservatives who stayed home last election," he said. "[Trump] needs to speak to them."