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Donald Trump faces real reality TV on Thursday night

CLEVELAND — After three days of a convention gone wrong, Donald Trump has one more more chance — his Thursday night acceptance speech.

The good news for the bombastic billionaire is that it's a very big chance.

In every convention, the candidate's speech accepting a party nomination is the week's most important event — by far. For good or ill, political veterans say, it provides at least 75 percent of what the electorate takes away from the week.

Events so far have left Trump with a lot to overcome.

Donald Trump during the third night at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 20, 2016.
Aaron P. Bernstein | Reuters
Donald Trump during the third night at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 20, 2016.

The controversy over Melania Trump borrowing Michelle Obama's words in her convention speech stretched through Wednesday. That's when a Trump speechwriter, showing the campaign's earlier denials had been false, acknowledged that she put Obama's words into the speech, if inadvertently after Melania read them to her.

Embarrassing displays of disunity also stretched through Wednesday. The boos that broke out on the convention floor during a rules vote on Monday became thunderous on Wednesday night when Ted Cruz refused to endorse Trump and told Republicans to "vote your conscience."

That was the opposite of what Trump wanted as he struggles to achieve the 90 percent party unity. The fact that electrical failure darkened video screens throughout the convention hall added to impressions of chaos and poor planning in the one election-year event over which candidates and political parties have near-total control.

Which leaves the stakes for Trump's speech extremely high. He has unfiltered access to tens of millions of American voters to deliver his message. But what kind of message will it be?

His improvisational speaking style won him the Republican nomination. But he needs to convince swing voters that he's capable of serving as commander-in-chief, which requires steadiness and calm.

Trump made that task harder with an interview he gave to The New York Times on Wednesday in which he said that as president he would not automatically defend NATO allies against Russian aggression. Indeed, most things that have happened this week have made his job harder. Thursday night represents a reality television show on a higher level than even Trump has ever experienced.