Donald Trump remains the underdog in next week's presidential election, but he is riding the momentum of a few good news cycles about tightening polls and the renewed chatter about Hillary Clinton's emails in the wake of the FBI's latest action.
If I can just avoid saying or doing anything outrageous for a few more days, Trump must be thinking, then I actually might win this thing.
Or at least, it sounds as if Trump is thinking this, because he said it aloud during a Wednesday night rally in Pensacola, Fla.
“Stay on point, Donald,” Trump said, talking to himself mid-speech. “Stay on point. No sidetracks, Donald.”
Trump indeed has a knack for taking media pressure off his opponent with inflammatory comments at his campaign events. During one memorable week in August, for instance, the Republican nominee made headlines with a wild assertion that President Obama is the “founder of ISIS” and a suggestion that if Clinton wins the election, “Second Amendment people” could “maybe” do something about her and her judicial appointments.
Those remarks distracted from a bad stretch for Clinton that included scrutiny of her record as a job creator and a release of State Department emails indicating some Clinton Foundation donors received special access to the department while Clinton was secretary of state.
So Trump gave himself sound advice Wednesday. It was just a rather public pep talk.
The timing was not random. Earlier in the day, he had gotten himself sidetracked at a rally in Miami, where he launched into a standard complaint about press coverage — then singled out NBC News's Katy Tur for ridicule by his supporters.
Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, told CNN between the Miami and Pensacola events that she had talked to NBC News about the episode. Did she also talk to her candidate about exercising restraint?
In another appearance on CNN on Thursday morning, Conway did not dispute anchor Chris Cuomo's suggestion that Trump was “channeling” his campaign manager when he talked to himself onstage.
CUOMO: You know what the giveaway was? He does not refer to himself as “Donald.” He says “Trump.” Is he channeling you? Is that the advice you're giving him?
CONWAY: Oh, look, I think Donald Trump does his best when he's talking about issues and when people get to see the Donald Trump that we know, who's incredibly gracious and really funny and is doing this for all the right reasons.
Staying “on point” is clearly a challenge for Trump. A moment after his “no sidetracks” conversation with himself, Trump called Clinton “totally unhinged” — not exactly “gracious” or “funny” or “talking about issues.”
He just can't help himself. And Trump's impulsiveness clearly worries Conway.
In an A-plus use of a split-screen, CNN played a clip of Trump in Pensacola while showing Conway's reactions in an adjacent frame.
This was Conway's expression when Trump told himself to “stay on point.”
Nodding. Smiling. Thumbs up. She even appeared to mouth the word “winning.”
Compare that to Conway's expression when Trump called Clinton “unhinged.”
Eyebrows up. Smile fading. Eyes shifting uncomfortably.
Conway's thought bubble in that moment said something like, This is not what we just talked about, Donald.
Maybe Conway is going to have another chat with her candidate. Maybe Trump will repeat it to himself (and us) at his next rally.