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Despite Disinvite, Trump Dominates GOP Confab

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hundreds of conservative activists are heading home this morning after a weekend sizing up Republican presidential candidates in Atlanta. But there was one candidate conspicuously absent from the RedState gathering. We're talking of course about Donald Trump. He was disinvited after making disparaging remarks about Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly after she questioned his past statements about women. Trump seemed to suggest that during last week's Republican debate, Kelly was hormonal. The real estate tycoon and reality TV star says his statement was misconstrued. As NPR's Sarah McCammon reports from Atlanta, Trump may have been absent from the event, but not from the conversation.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: It felt a little anti-climactic. The RedState gathering was scheduled to culminate with a tailgate party headlined by Donald Trump at Atlanta's College Football Hall of Fame.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREE")

ZAC BROWN BAND: (Singing) Just as free, free as we'll ever be.

MCCAMMON: Instead, as country music played, participants mingled and ate sandwiches from Chick-fil-A. But many didn't seem to mind the low-key mood, like Brian Bresnahan of Cumming, Ga., who says he's a little tired of Trump.

BRIAN BRESNAHAN: I think it's really turned into the Trump show for him.

MCCAMMON: Bresnahan says Trump is bad for the party, too divisive, he says.

BRESNAHAN: I think maybe he should take the message that unless he's going to play nice in the sandbox, he's not welcome in the Republican Party.

MCCAMMON: Eating at the same table was Ginger Howard of Atlanta. She's been coming to the gathering for several years, organized by the conservative blog, redstate.com. Howard says editor-in-chief Erick Erickson was right to tell Trump to stay home.

GINGER HOWARD: If you are running for the highest office in the land, the president of the United States of America, those comments are not acceptable.

MCCAMMON: But others had warmer feelings for Trump. Jim Herak of Monroe, Ga., says Trump had a point in criticizing Fox anchor Megyn Kelly.

JIM HERAK: The question he was asked was out of line.

MCCAMMON: Herak says it would have been fine to ask Trump about insults he's lobbed at women, like calling them dogs and fat pigs, but in a different format.

HERAK: Maybe on some other time you might want to get him down on that - a one-on-one - but in a national debate? No, I don't think it was fair.

MCCAMMON: Still, he says he understands why Erick Erickson disinvited Trump after Trump appeared to suggest Kelly's questions had something to do with menstruation. And Erickson said farewell to the crowd gathered at the College Football Hall of Fame, he said he wanted to make it clear Fox News did not pressure him to disinvite Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERICK ERICKSON: No, no, sometimes you just do the right thing.

(APPLAUSE)

MCCAMMON: Speaking backstage afterward, Erickson said he thinks this may prove fatal for Trump's campaign. While it's far from the first time Trump has made comments that drew criticism, Erickson says these were especially egregious.

ERICKSON: He's not a politician, and I wanted to give him a latitude because he does tap into some anger with the Republican base that they have over Republican leaders in Washington ignoring them. But when you attack a journalist for doing her job and the first thing in your head is that she must be having her period, to attack someone doing her job just seems out of balance to me.

MCCAMMON: Erickson has his own history of being accused of making sexist remarks, tweeting that women are not as funny as men, mocking Hillary Clinton's age and others. But he says the difference is he's not running for president. And he has apologized for at least some of his comments.

ERICKSON: Now, you've got all the other candidates and a lot of prominent conservatives saying this one was the straw that broke the camel's back.

MCCAMMON: But at least some of Trump's supporters aren't giving up.

ROD REED: He should have showed up anyway. But he'll be back.

MCCAMMON: Outside the event, Rod Reed of Atlanta sat on the sidewalk for a couple of hours, holding a sign that read, Trump this country, Donald. Reed says he doesn't buy the idea that Trump's days are numbered.

REED: No, it's only the beginning for Donald - only the beginning.

MCCAMMON: Whether it's the beginning or the beginning of the end should become clear in the weeks and months to come. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.