SPARKS, Nev. — A new Donald Trump showed up here this week.
Gone were the withering attacks on his Republican rivals, the obsessive discussion of his poll numbers and another spate of bombshell remarks.
Trump instead focused on more fully introducing himself to voters at an hour-long rally here, underscoring a subtle maturation for a presidential candidate trying to move the spotlight away from his booming reality-TV personality.
This shift comes as Trump fights to maintain his position as the untouchable front-runner and the national favorite of conservatives. After months of dominating the field, other candidates now pose a threat, especially retired surgeon Ben Carson, a fellow non-politician who is leading in Iowa.
In front of a crowd of several thousand people at the Nugget Casino here, Trump took a handful of questions from the audience, but none from reporters as he once regularly did. He touted his instincts, leadership style and negotiating skills. And he pitched himself as someone who thinks like them but has the power and acumen to enact their dreams.
“It’s not about being a celebrity,” Trump said. “It’s about having a view that’s captivating the people in this country, because they’re tired of being taken advantage of, they’re tired of being stupid, they’re tired of having their leaders be outnegotiated on every single deal. They’re tired of it. They’re tired of having China rip us off on every trade deal — and Japan and Mexico and everybody else. They’re tired of it.”
Absent from Trump’s speech was the usual blizzard of barbs about his opponents, such as questioning Carson’s religion, mocking Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for profusely sweating or accusing former Florida governor Jeb Bush of being “low energy.” Trump instead praised Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for their strong debate performances the previous night. The only time he mentioned Carson was to describe how they partnered up to pressure CNBC to limit the debate length.
And Trump thanked former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who barely made it onto the debate stage, for defending him the night before when debate moderators asked the governor to comment on Trump’s morals.
“There aren’t a lot of people that would do that,” Trump said. “He had a perfect opportunity to talk about himself, and he didn’t do that, so he’s a special guy.”
The softened tone was welcomed by many in the audience.
“He needs to cool it,” said Les Birch, 77, a retired elevator builder who lives in Carson City and defends Trump’s policy positions in Facebook conversations but doesn’t weigh in on Trump’s critiques of other candidates. “He needs to stop attacking people personally.”
Sparks resident Gretchen Graft, 53, said: “He’s starting to mellow out a little bit now, I think, because he’s got a whole year of campaigning to go. I mean, how can that man keep that up?”
Behind the scenes, Trump’s campaign is working to sustain his grass-roots support and harness the passion of his fans. The goal is to out-organize the competition, especially Carson, who spends much less time on the campaign trail and has yet to match the organization of Trump’s campaign operation.
The effort is well organized in Iowa, where campaign staffers have been coaching crowds at rallies on how to participate in the Feb. 1 caucuses and recruiting caucus captains. The campaign will soon announce additional hiring in key states, including a regional director to oversee the southern states participating in the March 1 “SEC primary,” according to campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
Trump’s modulation goes only so far. He is still the same swaggering billionaire who doesn’t hesitate to toss around the term “anchor babies,” brag about his wealth or circulate rumors.
Here in Sparks, Trump concentrated on the issues that have defined his candidacy: no longer granting U.S. citizenship to the babies of illegal immigrants, recovering jobs that moved overseas, lowering taxes, renegotiating the Iran deal and replacing free trade with what he calls “fair trade.”
He also continued his assault on one of his favorite targets: the media. Trump called reporters covering Thursday’s rally “the scum back there” and received raucous applause for criticizing the CNBC moderators of the previous night’s debate for their “nasty” questions. Later in the day, Trump tweeted that moderator John Harwood “bombed.”
“It was stupid gotcha questions,” said Michelle George, 54, a pharmacist who lives in Sparks and came to the rally with a friend. “But he didn’t hurt himself. He wasn’t rude and injecting himself. . . . He was more presidential, toned down.”
Trump declared himself the winner of the debate and took credit for persuading CNBC to limit the event to two hours instead of three — reducing their potential advertising profit.
“They folded in about 15 seconds,” Trump said, to cheers. He then theorized: “Maybe that’s why CNBC was so angry.”
Listening in the audience was Christine Knight of Minden, Nev., who has narrowed her choices down to two candidates: Trump or Carson. She likes that Trump “says things like the way they are,” even if he can be a bit over the top in doing so, and that he addresses major issues that other politicians seem to be afraid to touch. But she also likes that Carson is “a little more humble, sensitive and passionate about people.”
“Not that Trump isn’t, but he doesn’t come across that way,” said Knight, 49. “I’m just trying to make up my mind.”
Costa reported from Denver.