CLEVELAND — A year ago, few imagined Donald Trump as a headline speaker at the Republican National Convention — let alone as its star.
Back then, maybe the billionaire New Yorker was alone in thinking he would arrive in Cleveland this week as the GOP's presumptive nominee for president. There are still some Republicans trying to stop him, but the party's four-day coronation of its unlikely White House hopeful will complete his rise from real estate mogul to potential leader of the free world.
"It was quite a journey," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said. "Not just what he was able to do in getting more votes than any Republican in the history of our party, but do it with 16 people running. It is a remarkable thing."
Indeed, the man who opened his campaign as a late night TV punchline will face the nation as the Republican Party standard-bearer, delivering what could be the most watched convention speech of all time.
Trump will do so in a time of tumult at home and abroad, punctuated Sunday by the fatal shooting of three police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Earlier this month the slaying of a black man in Baton Rouge by white officers led to protests nationwide and heightened concerns about the state of race relations in America. President Barack Obama, responding to the shooting Sunday, noted that the incidents had come just before political conventions that tend to involve "overheated" rhetoric, and he urged both parties to avoid "careless accusations" intended to score political points.
"Everyone right now, focus on words and actions that can unite this country, rather than divide us further," Obama said.
But Trump, insinuating that Obama held some responsibility, earlier blamed a "lack of leadership" for that shooting and added on Twitter, "We demand law and order." Democrat Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, echoed Obama's words in a statement urging Americans not to "turn our backs on each other."
In the days before the convention was set to open, Trump's choice of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate was overshadowed by a terror attack in France and attempted coup in Turkey.
Protests are widely expected outside the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, where the city's police chief, Calvin Williams, said Sunday that it seems everyone is coming to town to "exercise their First Amendment rights."
The circumstances only add to the attention placed on Trump and his politically incorrect and unscripted campaign, which has successfully tapped into a wave of populist anger that few others saw as the race for president began more than a year ago.
Trump has thrilled supporters with a willingness to hurl insults at Democrats and Republican alike, tearing them down them with pet nicknames: "Little Marco" and "Crooked Hillary" among them. Yet his lack of discipline and disorganized campaign has turned off many Republican leaders. His blunt tone and aggressive approach to immigration and terrorism has done the same with key segments of general election voters: women, blacks and Hispanics, especially.
According to any number of preference polls, Trump heads into the convention as one of the most unpopular major party nominees ever.
All of it makes the convention starting Monday must-see TV.
"He doesn't have natural filters," New York GOP Chairman Ed Cox said. "Let's see about the acceptance speech. That's probably going to be the most watched acceptance speech ever, because it's going to be dramatic. People don't know exactly what it's going to be."
An estimated 30 million people watched 2012 nominee Mitt Romney address the convention four years ago. After setting ratings records throughout the Republican primary season, Trump could very well shatter that number.
But what those tuning in will see between the chairman's opening gavel Monday afternoon and when roughly 125,000 balloons fall from the rafters at Quicken Loans Arena at the end of Trump's speech Thursday night remains, to a large degree, a mystery.
"We want America to understand who Donald Trump the man is, not just Donald Trump the candidate," Trump's campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, said Sunday on the convention floor.
It wasn't until the evening before before the convention was set to begin that GOP officials released a full list of speakers or said who will speak when. The party said the first night's theme would be "Make America Safe Again," followed by a focus on jobs on Tuesday. Monday's headliners include Trump's wife, Melania, and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, while Trump's children Tiffany and Donald Jr. will speak on Tuesday. Pence will speak on Wednesday.
Plenty of Republicans are skipping the show — including the GOP's two living ex-presidents and its last three nominees. While an official printed convention program features Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rob Portman near the front, neither will speak or even appear inside the convention hall.
The only professional athlete on the program is pro golfer Natalie Gulbis, after college football star Tim Tebow called his attendance "a rumor." Ivanka Trump's rabbi, scheduled to deliver the opening prayer, also backed out.
The pre-convention show got off to a rocky start, as the addition of Pence to the ticket dragged out over a few days amid rumblings that Trump was having second thoughts. Trump called the Indiana governor "my first choice" when introducing him Saturday in New York, but spent most of his 28-minute speech talking about anything but his new running mate and spent only a few seconds with him on stage.
Trump and his allies do appear to have quashed a rebellion from the so-called "Never Trump" movement. Rebel delegates still vow to cause convention mischief, but Trump will get an immediate boost when the nomination roll call starts with Alabama. At the mic will be delegation chairman Jeff Sessions, the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump and one of his most full-throated supporters in Congress.
"This 'Never Trump' push, it's been an interesting story, but it's one of noise at this point, not of substance," Alabama GOP Chairwoman Terry Lathan said Sunday.
That moment may help Trump score what he needs most from the convention: a picture of a Republican Party united behind his candidacy. To do it, the RNC chairman suggests that for this week, the infamously freewheeling Trump would do well to follow the script.
"He does really well on the teleprompters," Priebus told The Associated Press. "It really is, I think, presidential."
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Josh Lederman in Cleveland contributed to this report.
Follow Steve Peoples on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/sppeoples