ATLANTA — Michael Pemberton, a 65-year-old conservative from Kentucky, started the day in a good mood. He was attending his second RedState Gathering, and ready to hear from 10 of the Republican Party's presidential candidates. He dug into breakfast — coffee and fruit — and sat down with another conference-goer.
"One of the chaps across me asked, 'Did you hear the news?'" recalled Pemberton. "I thought he was going to tell me that a sinkhole opened up in Kentucky and I couldn't go again. But no: He said, they disinvited Donald Trump. I lost my appetite."
The TV news confirmed it. RedState's outgoing editor-in-chief, Erick Erickson, made an 11th hour call to disinvite Trump after the GOP presidential front-runner told CNN that Fox News's Megyn Kelly had "blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever" when she grilled him during Thursday's presidential debate.
Pemberton grabbed a sharpie and a note card and scrawled out "I AM DONALD TRUMP." He affixed it to his jacket with an American flag pin and grudgingly walked into the conference, determined never to come again.
More than 700 activists had signed up for the gathering, and up to a thousand of them had been expected to join Trump at a Saturday night party at the College Football Hall of Fame. On Saturday morning, the reaction to Trump's exclusion was mixed — and distracting. Annoyance at what seemed to be a politically correct purge competed with annoyance at Trump himself.
"It was really inappropriate to attack Megyn Kelly," said Richard Fonte, 70, an activist who split his time between Texas and Illinois, and strongly supported Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) for president. "That and the fact that he's taking the position that he might run as a third party — that would automatically elect Hillary Clinton."
Fonte's wife, Dulsey, 68, was even happier to see Trump gone: "I find him crude," she said. "I have no sympathy for his candidacy."
Those sentiments had been burbling up on the right, but even 12 hours earlier, Trump's Republican critics had started to soften their tone, and say that the billionaire candidate had tapped into a well of legitimate voter anger. Saturday's burst of anger at Trump was jarring; not everyone at the conference could agree what Trump had even said. Was he making a crude joke about menstruation or wasn't he?
"It's wrong to exclude him and insult him on what people interpret he said as opposed to what he said," said Pemberton. "He was saying that Megyn was seeing blood, in her eyes. As far as 'blood coming out all over,' the first thing I think of is not a woman's menstrual cycle. I think of Jesus Christ, thorns on his head, nail holes in his hands, stigmata."
In an interview with The Washington Post's Robert Costa, Erickson defended his Trump snub by attacking the overall tone of the candidate's post-debate rants. The CNN "blood" interview came after a series of jabs at Kelly, which started in the spin room behind the debate stage. To Erickson, it all sounded sexist and dismissive. "I’m not going to have a guy on stage with my wife and daughter in the crowd who thinks a tough question from a woman is because of hormones," he said.
In a Saturday morning tweet, Trump clarified, saying he was talking about blood coming from her nose. (His campaign had failed to convey this to Erickson.)
His campaign later released a statement, credited to Trump, that ripped into the RedState editor-in-chief personally.
"The guy (Erick Erickson) who made the decision about RedState called Supreme Court Justice David Souter a 'goat [expletive] child molester' and First Lady Michelle Obama a 'Marxist Harpy,'" Trump said. "He was forced to make a humbling apology. Also, not only is Erick a total loser, he has a history of supporting establishment losers in failed campaigns so it is an honor to be uninvited from his event."
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who opened Saturday's session of the Gathering, found himself pulled into the Trump frenzy. He did not mention Trump in his speech, nor did Erickson ask any questions about the candidate or his remarks. Yet when Huckabee walked into a short news conference, he hit a wall of Trump queries.
"Rather than say something about the criticism, I'll tell you there's not a more professional, more savvy, and more brilliant person in television today than Megyn Kelly," Huckabee insisted.
He refused to speak on Trump's behalf. He rejected a question about whether the Trump outrage fed into Democratic accusations that the GOP waged a "war" on women.
"The Republican Party is not engaged in a war on women," said Huckabee. "The Republican Party is not engaged in saying things about Megyn Kelly. One individual is. I'm a Republican. I've been one since a teenager. I think what I say about Megyn Kelly has more gravity."
It sounded as though Huckabee was attacking Trump, until he got a question about whether the tycoon was too "thin-skinned" to be president.
"I don't know what his skin looks like," said Huckabee. "I haven't been that close. Do we have another non-Donald Trump question?"
A few reporters obliged, asking Huckabee about gay marriage, abortion, and the upcoming block of Southern Republican contests that have become known as the "SEC primary." Then came another Trump question.
"I'm running for president," said Huckabee. "I'm not running to be the social media critic of someone else who's running for president. You guys can ask him all day. Talk to me about issues. Talk to me about my tax plan. Talk to me about Iran. There's plenty of people who can talk about Donald Trump. I'm the only one who can talk about Mike Huckabee running for president."