HARRISBURG, Pa. – Standing in a conference room at a swanky South Florida hotel, Donald Trump’s chief adviser assured Republican insiders his boss was ready to tone down his over-the-top persona.
He’s been “projecting an image,” Paul Manafort told the GOP officials. “The part that he’s been playing is now evolving.”
But two hours later, Trump was telling the crowd at a rambunctious rally in Pennsylvania that he wasn’t ready to change.
“I just don’t know if I want to do it yet,” Trump said Thursday as supporters roared with approval. Ever the entertainer, he said that acting more presidential would leave his audiences “bored,” and that instead of drawing thousands, “I’ll have 150 people.”
The comments by Trump and new aide Manafort underscore a central tension surging through the Republican front-runner’s campaign. Even as he builds a more professional operation, the billionaire businessman appears – at least for now – unable or unwilling to dial back the free-wheeling brashness that has both energized his millions of supporters and turned off millions of other Americans.
There have been previous promises that a more “presidential” Trump was about to emerge, as well as descriptions from supporters who insist there’s a charming, down-to-earth side of the real estate mogul that surfaces in private. Trump has shown flashes of what the “other Trump” might look like, but quickly reverted to his familiar campaign self.
The latest talk from Manafort comes at a crucial moment in Trump’s campaign, as he seeks to unite the Republican Party behind his candidacy and hold off efforts to potentially snatch the nomination away if the race goes to a contested national convention. Many in the party fear Trump is viewed so unfavorably by a wide swath of Americans that he would not only keep Republicans out of the White House but also damage GOP candidates running for other offices and perhaps even cause irreparable damage to the party.
South Carolina GOP chairman Matt Moore attended Manafort’s presentation in Florida, and emerged confident that Trump was prepared to make necessary changes.
“He has an opportunity to reinvent himself as a more presidential front-runner for the party. And I hope he does that,” Moore said.
But Trump’s critics, including rival Ted Cruz, tried to use Manafort’s assertion that he has simply been “playing a part” as an opportunity to undercut the front-runner’s core strength: that he’s authentic to a fault and says what he believes, regardless of the political repercussions.
Speaking to reporters after an event in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Friday, Cruz said Trump’s advisers had “gone down and told Republican Party bosses that everything Donald has said on the campaign is just to a show, he doesn’t believe any of it.”
If there’s an abrupt change, some supporters might feel the same way.
“If he suddenly changed, it would be really disappointing,” said Irene Mallabar, 67, a retired antique dealer from Milford, Delaware. “That’s not who he is,” she said at a Trump rally at the State Fairgrounds in Harrington. “It wouldn’t feel real. Or maybe we wouldn’t know what was real.”
Cruz trails Trump in the delegate count, but is banking on being able to keep the front-runner from reaching the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure the nomination. That would push the GOP race toward a contested convention.
Trump wants to avoid a complicated floor fight, and top aides are promising a more traditional campaign – and candidate – to try to persuade party leaders to stick with him even he’s just shy of the delegates he needs.
Trump has hired a handful of more experienced advisers, including Manafort. The notoriously thrifty billionaire is also plunging $2 million into television advertising in Pennsylvania and Indiana, states that hold primary contests over the next two weeks. One traditional-looking spot features Trump talking directly into the camera about his policy proposals. The other appears aimed at softening his image, presenting him as a father and grandfather.
Next Wednesday, Trump will deliver a formal address on foreign affairs, the first in a long-promised series of a policy speeches meant to infuse his campaign with a degree of seriousness. But underscoring the push-and-pull between Trump and advisers who want him to assume a more presidential aura, it’s taken months of cajoling to get that first speech on the books.
Even as recently as Tuesday, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski – whose responsibilities have been curtailed since Manafort’s hiring – was questioning the necessity of policy speeches, saying that’s not what voters care most about.
“I don’t think the voters really have as much concern, but I know you guys are dying for one,” he told reporters.
Darrell Scott, the CEO of Trump’s new National Diversity Coalition, is among those says there’s a gracious, humble private man beneath the brash exterior. That’s “the Trump I’ve always known,” Scott said.
“Trump has to make the transition from public figure to public servant,” he added. “He’s growing into this role.”
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