It was not a great day for the Republican Party in most of the country Saturday, but you'd never suspect anything was amiss with the GOP presidential candidate at the Bakersfield Business Conference, a sea of red, white and true-blue American conservatism.
As party leaders condemned Donald Trump in the wake of offensive comments he made about women 11 years ago - remarks that came to light Friday - many attendees, politicians and conservative pundits stood behind the nominee, convinced the media are waging a campaign to undermine him.
However, off the main stage, former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal - a onetime rival for their party’s nomination - condemned Trump, as did speakers Ann Romney and Magic Johnson. Jindal called the comments “atrocious” and wondered whether the brash businessman should leave the race, just 30 days before the election.
“That’s something he’ll have to decide,” Jindal told The Californian exclusively, following a positive though surprisingly neutered appearance on stage alongside two other former governors and Bakersfield Congressman Kevin McCarthy.
“I’ve talked to several folks here who are wondering what to do. My original concern was not wanting Hillary Clinton to appoint the next Supreme Court justice, but look, this is causing a lot of problems for a lot of Republicans, bottom line.”
But Jindal’s rebuke was a rare deviation from the impassioned defense of the nominee that most Republicans offered at the conference, the first since 2010.
Returnees - between 6,000 and 7,000 - were giddy to be back at the party, a spare-no-expense-or-amenity affair organized by attorney and impresario George Martin on the sprawling soccer fields of Cal State Bakersfield. The conferences, begun in 1985, have the feel of a family reunion for conservatives, many of whom turned up at Saturday’s forum wearing their best red, white and blue hats, shirts, jackets, shoes and, in one case, a dazzling sequined vest that blinded passers-by caught without their sunglasses. The snaking coffee lines early in the morning prompted some grumbling, and the hike required for a trip to the restrooms tested stamina and bladders.
But the pent-up demand for another business conference was obvious, even at 6:30 in the morning, an hour before the gates opened.
“I slept on the couch to make sure I’d get up on time,” said Mary K., the first person in line, who declined to give her last name.
Liberal radio host Stephanie Miller kicked off the daylong event, giving her many hecklers as good as she got. Her reception would prove to be a portent for how other Hillary Clinton supporters, including James Carville, would be treated throughout the day - with boos and jeers.
But perhaps being in unfriendly territory gave the Democrats their sense of brio. Indeed, some of the conference’s best one-liners came from their lips.
Carville, squaring off against conservative Ann Coulter, invoked Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, who had appeared earlier, in his quip about Trump: “Let’s win one for the Groper!”
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson delivered the most humorous lines among panel partners Jindal and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. McCarthy lobbed softballs to his fellow politicians, who never mentioned the Trump controversy directly.
“The only Democrats here are myself and that guy in the kitchen,” quipped Richardson, who added, of former Bakersfield Congressman Bill Thomas: “Boy, did he have a temper. I hope he cooled down.”
But the witty rejoinders weren’t reserved for liberals. Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio packed the political tent with his fiery rhetoric about illegal immigration, how to treat inmates - feed them vegetables and give them pink underwear - and his allegiance to Trump.
“Trump called my wife six times. He doesn’t even know what my wife looks like. He’s got a heart somewhere.”
The conference wasn’t all about politics and pathos. The charmers of the day were uproarious actress/comedian Vicki Lawrence and NBA legend Magic Johnson, of the blinding white smile and easy charisma, who brought up members of the audience for questions and selfies without breaking his stride.
Perhaps the most beguiling big-tent speaker was Oscar-winning actress Diane Keaton, whose midday address came as something of a respite, a refreshing palate cleanser between the day’s meat and potatoes.
The “Annie Hall” and “Something’s Gotta Give” actress won over many, especially, it seemed, women, with her talk of love.
“Fifty-five million women over 50 live in America, and 21 million are single. I’m single,” she said. “Who is going to remind us - all 55 million of us - that we’re worth it?”
Two conservative firebrands - Coulter and Laura Ingraham, the darling of the Republican National Convention - shook guests awake during their appearances by going, or seeming to go, off-color. When discussing Trump, Coulter uttered the P-word - the actual word - and it sounded to many attendees that Ingraham dropped the F-bomb, though not everyone was sure she actually did.
Most, though, were certain she riffed on this common theme:
"Four more years of what we've just experienced in the last seven and a half years should just scandalize you," Ingraham said.
Fellow conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt did not mount a defense of Trump though he also declined to address a tweet he sent earlier in the day calling on the nominee to abandon his presidential bid. He, along with McCarthy, Jindal and Perry also avoided the media tent, though most speakers answered questions following their appearances.
Hewitt did say during his remarks that he wasn’t sure whether Trump would stay in the election past Saturday.
“I have no idea,” Hewitt said. “Nobody knows what’s coming.”
If organizers feared a post-lunch drowse, the Coulter/Carville bout served as a bracing pick-me-up. The debate was the loudest of the day, with Carville drowning out the deafening jeers of the crowd every time he expressed support for Hillary and Bill Clinton.
Coulter, meanwhile, called Bill Clinton a “serial rapist” and accused the late Ted Kennedy of murder for his role in the death of a young woman in the Chappaquiddick scandal of 1969.
Among the marquee names this year was that of Dr. Ben Carson, the only one of Trump’s Republican rivals to offer the front-runner a significant challenge during the primaries. He, too, declined to mention Trump, instead recounting the poverty of his youth, his mother’s refusal of public aid and his successful career as a surgeon. He also used the platform to criticize some of his favorite targets, like the Affordable Care Act and what he believes to be the erosion of Judeo-Christian values.
“That’s the thing about God,” he told the audience. “People are trying to kick him out of our country right now, but he’s real.”
Meanwhile, an established star in the Democratic Party, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, hinted at making a gubernatorial run while delivering his address in the political tent, but focused his talk on bridging the gaping political divide.
“We need leaders to bring us together,” he said. “What’s wrong with politics nowadays? It used to be civility was something that we kind of respected. We thought it as a good thing. It used to be that compromise wasn’t a bad word.”
Following addresses by NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre and Herman Cain, a former hopeful for the Republican presidential nomination, the surprise guests - always a show-stopper at the conference - were announced.
This year, there were three, all of whom shared a military theme:
Leroy Petry, an Army Ranger who won the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Afghanistan that left him with injuries in his legs and an artificial hand.
Capt. Dan Quinn, who ignored military protocol by confronting and beating an Afghan officer who was using a local boy as a sex slave.
Capt. Richard Phillips, whose ship was taken by Somali pirates in 2009, only to survive with the aid of Navy SEALs. He’s the subject of the movie “Captain Phillips” starring Tom Hanks.
“I heard a lot of political stuff come through this tent,” Petry said. “You hear the two slogans (of Clinton and Trump), ‘Stronger Together’ and ‘Make America Great Again.’ Both are great slogans, but both are targeted at dividing us. I think change doesn’t come from the top; I think it comes from people like you.”