Is it too late for a Donald Trump makeover?
Even as the billionaire real estate mogul took steps this week to soften his brash persona, Democrats ramped up their efforts to tangle Trump in his own words — rushing to portray him as immature, misogynistic and bigoted.
The battle to define the Republican presidential front-runner comes as Trump has sought to professionalize his campaign and persuade party leaders that he is capable of mounting a credible general-election fight. On Thursday, Trump’s chief strategist told a group of Republicans behind closed doors that Trump has been playing a “part” and is “now evolving.”
But his opponents on the left, looking to weaken him for the fall, are already rolling out reminders of his most undisciplined moments.
“#TrumpHatesUs” declares a spot from NARAL Pro-Choice America launching this week in Pennsylvania, which plays audio of some of his most inflammatory comments over portraits of women of varied ages and ethnicities. A new web video from Priorities USA Action, a super PAC backing Democratic contender Hillary Clinton, labels Trump “dangerously unpresidential,” stringing together footage of him bragging about the size of his hands and mocking Sen. Marco Rubio’s water drinking habits.
“Donald Trump is going to have a hard time running away from his own words,” said Joel Foster, political director of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
The attacks underscore the difficulty that Trump and the Republican Party will have in softening the potential nominee’s rough edges for a general-election campaign, particularly when brazenness is central to the candidate’s appeal to his followers.
“One thing you learn very quickly in political consulting is the fruitlessness of trying to get a candidate to change who he or she fundamentally is at their core,” said Republican strategist Whit Ayres, who did polling for Rubio’s presidential campaign before he dropped out of the race. “So is the snide, insulting, misogynistic guy we’ve seen really who Donald Trump is? Or is it the disciplined, respectful, unifying Trump we saw for seven minutes after the New York primary?
“None of us can give ourselves a personality transplant,” Ayres added.
Well-funded Democratic groups already have developed searing lines of attack about Trump’s character and temperament, seizing on remarks he has made on the campaign trail. The onslaught will begin in earnest if he secures the GOP nomination in early June, when Priorities USA plans to kick off a $125 million television and digital ad campaign contrasting Clinton with her GOP rival.
“The Republicans taught us a very important lesson,” said Guy Cecil, Priorities’ senior strategist. “They waited month after month before taking on Trump. We’re obviously not going to make that mistake.”
The Clinton campaign has increasingly made Trump’s controversial comments about Muslims and other groups the core of its bid for the Democratic nomination and eventually the general election.
The strategy was increasingly apparent in advance of this week’s New York primary, when the campaign released three television ads — including one in Spanish — aimed at convincing Democratic primary voters that Clinton is willing and able to combat Trump.
That’s a message, powered by Trump’s own words, that they intend to carry into November if she clinches the nomination.
“I think that Donald Trump’s long campaign filled with divisive, bigoted, intolerant comments have fully formed his image with the American public,” Clinton pollster and senior advisor Joel Benenson. “In almost every poll I’ve seen in the last two months or so, the vast majority have fewer than 10 percent of the people who are undecided in their opinion about Mr. Trump.”
The early attempt to define Trump is similar to a tactic that President Obama and the Priorities group deployed in the spring of 2012, when they launched a series of ads casting Republican Mitt Romney as the enemy of middle-class workers.
Trump is in a much more precarious position than Romney was at this point in the race. Trump has a 67 percent unfavorable rating — the lowest since 1984 of a candidate who went on to be a major party’s nominee, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll released last week. At this point in 2012, Romney was seen unfavorably by 48 percent of the general public — 19 points better than Trump.
But Trump is dismissive of the idea that his provocative comments have inflicted permanent political damage.
When pressed Thursday by NBC’s Matt Lauer on how he can win over voters offended by his rhetoric about women, Mexicans and Muslims, Trump essentially shrugged.
“I did some things and I’ve said some things in fun,” said the former reality television star, comparing his comments to language he used on NBC’s “The Apprentice.”
“A lot of that was entertainment,” he said, adding: “I think that women will be big fans.”
Trump also promised that his tone would soon shift. “At the right time, I will be so presidential, you will be so bored,” he said. “You will say, ‘Can he have a little bit more energy?’ But I know when to be presidential.”
In coming weeks, Trump is expected to put a new focus on inclusiveness, touting the number of women and Latinos who have worked for Trump properties, according to a campaign official who requested anonymity to discuss internal plans. Some are likely to show up on the campaign trail for him as surrogates.
On Thursday, Trump also took a stand against a controversial law in North Carolina that requires transgender people to use restrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates. He called the measure unnecessary and noted the economic fallout that the state has suffered since it was announced, putting himself at odds with the party’s conservative base.
“You leave it the way it is,” he said. “There have been very few complaints the way it is. People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate. There has been so little trouble.”
Even so, advisers acknowledge that the central part of Trump’s appeal is his outspokenness, and he is unlikely to ratchet that down. For every example this week of a mellow, conciliatory Trump, there was another moment in which he reverted to his bellicose form.
In a restrained victory speech in New York Tuesday night, he referred respectfully to chief rival Ted Cruz as “Senator Cruz.” But by Wednesday, at his first campaign stop in Indianapolis, his reference to “Lyin’ Ted” — a crowd favorite — was back. Later in Berlin, Md., he went aggressively after “Crooked Hillary” Clinton and accused her of criminal and ethical wrongdoings, suggesting he would launch an investigation into unspecified crimes if he became president.
Behind the scenes, a team of political veterans is working on Trump’s behalf to convince state party chairmen and other GOP officials that he is maturing as a candidate and that his expanding campaign team is up to task of leading the party into the fall election.
Trump’s newly empowered top aide, Paul Manafort, and political director Rick Wiley held private meetings Thursday with party officials gathered at a luxury resort in Hollywood, Fla., for a Republican National Committee meeting.
Helping Manafort and Wiley woo party elites was Bill Palatucci, an RNC member and longtime confidant of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Manafort told RNC members in a closed-door briefing that his candidate has been playing a “part” on the campaign trail but is starting to pivot toward presenting a more businesslike and presidential “persona.”
“He gets it,” Manafort said. “The part that he’s been playing is now evolving into the part that you’ve been expecting. The negatives will come down, the image is going to change, but ‘Crooked Hillary’ is still going to be ‘Crooked Hillary.’ ”
The courting by Trump’s advisers came after Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich visited the RNC conclave on Thursday to make the case for their own candidacies in private huddles and more formal briefings.
Cruz told reporters that Trump was a “niche candidate” who is incapable of winning support from a majority of Republicans, let alone defeat the Democratic nominee in a general election.
“To be a strong and effective candidate, you’ve got to put together a majority,” Cruz said. “He can’t earn a majority.”
His campaign manager, Jeff Roe, used even stronger language, saying that a Trump nomination would be disastrous for Republican candidates down the ballot in November.
That message is now central to Cruz’s argument as he tries to convince voters that he is a stronger choice. A new web ad released by his campaign Thursday depicted a fictional meeting of Hillary Clinton’s aides strategizing against Trump.
After the group ticks through lines of attack against Trump, one of them tells the Clinton character, “If Trump becomes the Republican nominee, the White House is yours.”
DelReal reported from Ocean City, Md. Sean Sullivan in Indianapolis; Dan Balz, Robert Costa and Philip Rucker in Hollywood, Fla.; and Scott Clement and Abby Phillip in Washington contributed to this report.