Donald Trump Looms Large Over New York GOP Gala

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks the 2016 annual New York State Republican Gala on April 14, 2016 in New York City.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks the 2016 annual New York State Republican Gala on April 14, 2016 in New York City. Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez for Getty Images

All three Republican candidates for president descended on Manhattan tonight just days ahead of a rare competitive primary—but the candidate who garnered the most attention barely even talked politics.

“Who the hell wants to talk about politics all the time?” Donald Trump asked a room full of Republican party donors at the New York State GOP Gala tonight. “Because politics gets a little boring.”

After all, the Republican front-runner was the only one in the room who could lay claim to building the hotel, the Grand Hyatt, where the gala took place. In what was his first campaign speech in New York City, Mr. Trump, who drew thousands of protesters outside, sought to be the defender of what Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had derisively deemed “New York values”—but also a local guy made good, a builder of the city he loved.

He seemed to revel in talking local real estate, and patted himself on the back not just for building the Hyatt but for giving it a Park Avenue address. (“It’s on the Park Avenue ramp, in all fairness, right? It might not be pure Park.”) He dropped names that don’t typically show up in presidential stump speeches, like Ed Koch and Richard Ravitch (“This guy, I won’t mention his name—his name was Richard Ravitch”). He spent an inordinate amount of time discussing the various methods he considered using to build Wollman Rink—freon gas versus salted water, which Mr. Trump informed the crowd is called “brine.” 

“I built, you know, many other buildings across the city. I’m just listing some of them,” Mr. Trump said. “This was my first. This was my first: the Grand Hyatt hotel.”

There was no talk about building a wall to keep out immigrants from Mexico, or deporting them; nary a mention of banning Muslims from entering the country, all of which might have played poorly in the room. Instead, Mr. Trump’s speech to the black-tie crowd was an ode to Manhattan, meant to remind everyone of Mr. Cruz’s dismissal of the city months ago, back before anyone might have imagined its votes could actually matter. Those values, Mr. Trump said—in a rare instance where he consulted notes—were the values of police and firefighters and transit workers, of deli employees and the “families playing in Central Park.”

Mr. Trump eventually got around to talking politics, almost as an aside, when he wrapped up his remarks—noting he’d had more fun than expected in the race and led by a wide margin of votes and delegates. (He also took a knock at the energy level of Jeb Bush, who dropped out months ago, for good measure.)

Of course, Mr. Trump wasn’t the only one to make a New York-centric appeal. Mr. Cruz, his closest competitor, took the stage later in the evening and began by asking that God bless the “great state of New York”—perhaps looking to differentiate it from the city, whose liberal mayor he has taken great joy in criticizing.

“New York City is hallowed ground. It is the site of the worst terrorist attack on the United States soil,” Mr. Cruz began a section of his speech devoted to terrorism, saying when attacks happen elsewhere President Barack Obama “refuses to say the words radical Islamic terrorism and instead lectures the people on Islamaphobia.”

Mr. Cruz argued the stakes for Republicans were high—and that the party had to “unify or die” ahead of the November election. The party could not nominate a “candidate who loses to Hillary Clinton by double digits,” or cannot appeal to women or others in the general election, a jab at Mr. Trump—who has astoundingly high unfavorability ratings nationwide.

And then there was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who allowed the servers to somewhat noisily pass out dinner plates during his speech and spent much of his remarks introducing himself to the audience—but also singing the praises of New York City, a place he said he loved to visit with his wife. He spoke of his love for the food he’d eaten while campaigning here, and even apologized for using a knife and fork on his pizza on a recent trip to Howard Beach.

Mr. Kasich, likely to place second in the state’s primary did convince one New Yorker to give him their vote: former Gov. George Pataki, who endorsed Mr. Kasich shortly before the program began.

“He’s gonna command a lot of respect because he is respected by people all across the country because of his success in running New York, and to think about it, this is a guy who was the governor of New York three times,” Mr. Kasich laughed to reporters before his speech. “That’s almost like a miracle when you can do that.”

Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media. 

Donald Trump Looms Large Over New York GOP Gala