NEW YORK — In the face of a brutal new Democratic advertising assault, Donald Trump said he plans to rehabilitate his battered image in the coming weeks by publicly addressing head-on some of the most controversial episodes of his campaign.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s strategy is fueled by a desire to persuade voters that he’s nothing like the monster he believes his political adversaries and the media have portrayed him to be.
Trump is taking other steps to recalibrate the impression he leaves on voters. He sat down for a television special airing Tuesday night to make peace with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, with whom he has feuded for 10 months, and he has forcefully contested reporting that shows him to be callous and lecherous with women.
The moment speaks to the core challenge for Trump: His incendiary behavior, both before and during his populist campaign, has sown doubts about his character and fitness for office.
Trump put his tact to a test during an interview with The Washington Post here Monday afternoon. Unprompted, he delivered a five-minute soliloquy attempting to explain himself for making wild arm and hand gestures at a rally last November to discredit New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski. The act was widely seen as mocking the journalist’s physical disability and has been featured in numerous ads and videos designed to savage Trump.
“I would never say anything bad about a person that has a disability,” Trump said, leaning forward at his office desk. “I swear to you it’s true, 100 percent true. . . . Who would do that to [the] handicapped? I’ve spent a lot of money making buildings accessible.”
Trump then satirically reenacted the scene, his arms jerking all around, and said he was trying to show “a guy who grovels — ‘Oh, oh, I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that.’ That was the imitation I was doing.”
“Now,” he concluded, “is that a believable story?”
Whether voters believe it could help determine whether Trump can overcome a staggering popularity deficit with the general electorate, especially among women. Trump and his advisers know that improving his standing with white women in particular may be the key to defeating likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in battleground states such as Ohio and Virginia.
Trump’s moves come as Priorities USA, a pro-Clinton super PAC, began an aggressive and sustained television ad campaign this week assailing Trump as dangerous and divisive. The ads showcase a series of derogatory comments that Trump has made about women.
Clinton herself plans to seize on Trump’s past comments. “As he goes after women, as he goes after literally every group, I’m going to be their voice,” she tweeted last week.
Trump plans to counter the attacks personally. His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said the candidate would respond in a series of rallies and media appearances and highlight, among other things, his real estate firm’s history of hiring women for senior positions.
“This is deeply personal for Mr. Trump,” Lewandowski said. “He will do anything he can to correct the narrative. He wants to point to specific things that are absolutely false about him and go out and talk about them.”
Unlike in typical campaigns, Trump will not hold staged events with women or make other overtures to coveted voting blocs, Lewandowski said. “I don’t think he’ll pander to anybody,” he said. “The message will be the same to everybody.”
Both Trump and Clinton are deeply polarizing figures with high unfavorability ratings. Trump said that, despite his global celebrity and the saturation media coverage of his campaign, he is convinced that his political image is fluid and can be easily repaired. By contrast, he argued, it will be “impossible” for Clinton to change the way voters view her because her persona has become calcified over two decades in politics.
“She’s ‘Crooked Hillary,’ ” he said, using the derogatory nickname he has coined in an attempt to brand her as he did his Republican opponents.
In the Post interview, Trump interjected to offer an unprompted and lengthy defense of his statement last August accusing Kelly of having “blood coming out of her wherever” during her tough questioning of him in a debate. His comments were widely interpreted as a reference to Kelly’s menstrual cycle.
“When that narrative started, I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ Who would even think of that?” Trump said. “. . . I said ‘wherever’ — ears, nose. I wasn’t even thinking about the other.”
In the coming weeks, Trump said, “I may explain this stuff during speeches.” He added, “It may be old news, it may not be old news, but I’m just telling you.”
Democrats hope it is too late. “He can explain them all he wants, but I don’t think he can get away from them,” strategist Robert Shrum said. “If he spends all of his time explaining those remarks, he’ll only dig a bigger hole.”
Using the same metaphor, Democratic consultant James Carville said, “The guy can’t seem to get rid of his shovel.”
“At your rallies you want to be talking about hope for middle America, about enhancing America’s position in the world and defeating ISIS,” Carville added. “If you spend your time on the other issue, I’m not sure you get very far.”
Republican operatives underscored the urgency for Trump, believing he has a tight window between now and the July political conventions to define himself before the general electorate or risk the Democrats doing it for him.
In 2012, early Democratic attacks against GOP nominee Mitt Romney were so successful that by that summer, Romney was viewed as a rich, out-of-touch plutocrat, and nothing he did in the fall altered that impression.
“Trump can’t lose the summer,” said Kellyanne Conway, a GOP pollster who managed a super PAC supportive of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “He has to redefine his image with suburban women, married women, unmarried women. Women are part of this movement that wants an outsider and fresh face, but he has to bring them over.”
Some Republican operatives are skeptical that Trump’s attempts to polish his image will work. “If he can get out there and seem genuine . . . I don’t know. Maybe,” said strategist Austin Barbour.
Others are more optimistic. Charlie Gerow, who chaired Republican Carly Fiorina’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, said she and other Trump rivals repeatedly tried to paint the billionaire as an obnoxious bully but struggled to make the tag stick.
“He’s made enough comments that have been really offensive to fill a room, but we were day in, day out surprised by what people were willing to accept from him,” Gerow said. “Most stuff didn’t seem to matter. In an ugly schoolyard brawl of a campaign, the shock value can get diminished.”