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Analysis: Donald Trump adjusting to role of GOP standard-bearer

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks on Super Tuesday primary election night at the White and Gold Ballroom at The Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., on Tuesday. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks on Super Tuesday primary election night at the White and Gold Ballroom at The Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., on Tuesday. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)
Michael Finnegan Los Angeles Times

On a night where Donald Trump leaped ahead of Republican rivals and won at least seven states, it was fitting that he dispensed with tradition and did not throw a victory party.

Instead, Trump summoned the media to a news conference in the regal setting of his Mar-a-Lago estate, a private social club in Palm Beach, Fla. It was a scene befitting a head of state, and that was the point.

As the reality of Trump’s likely capture of the Republican presidential nomination sets in, his top imperative is to expand his base of support by convincing millions of Americans to set aside any qualms they might have about his crude and, to many, offensive behavior.

It doesn’t come naturally.

“I’m going to get along great with Congress, OK?” Trump assured his audience – less to the reporters in his club’s ornate ballroom than to television viewers nationwide. “Paul Ryan, I don’t know him well, but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him. And if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price, OK?”

Trump’s remarks came a few hours after Ryan, the speaker of the House, joined Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in condemning the New York business tycoon for hesitating in renouncing the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

It was an extraordinary rebuke by the top Republicans in Congress of a man on the cusp of becoming their party’s presumptive White House nominee. It reflected rising alarm within the GOP establishment that a Trump candidacy could yield a top-to-bottom rout for Republicans in November.

Trump sought to turn that hostility to his advantage on Tuesday night, all but flaunting his rift with party leaders and the donors who bankroll their campaigns. He said he expected lobbyists and special interests to spend as much as $25 million to help Florida Sen. Marco Rubio defeat him in the March 15 Florida primary so they can “have their little senator do exactly as they want.”

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s fine – and if he wins, they’ll have total control,” Trump said.

Trump also defied party orthodoxy by restating his view that Planned Parenthood has done good work for millions of women, even as he called for defunding the group as long as it performs abortions.

That might not be “a perfect conservative view,” he said, but “I am a truth-teller and I will tell the truth.”

Trump tried to blunt the criticism over his failure, during a CNN interview on Sunday, to immediately disavow the support of Duke or the KKK, noting that he had done so both before and after the TV appearance. “How many times are you supposed to disavow?” he asked.

Trump did make an effort to calm the fears of Republicans. A surge in turnout in the Republican contests held so far, he argued, shows that he sparks voter enthusiasm, drawing Democrats and independents to the GOP.

“Look, I am a unifier,” he said. “I know people are going to find that a little bit hard to believe. But believe me, I am a unifier.”

With rising chatter about the potential for one of his opponents to snatch the nomination from him at a contested party convention next summer, Trump said: “What I really have is a great number of people. I have millions and millions of people.”

“We’re a democracy,” he added. “I think it’s awfully hard to say that’s not the person we want to lead the party.”

As for his brash manner, Trump used a back-and-forth with a CNN correspondent to try to smooth relations with the media, whose representatives he often dismisses as sleazebags. He mentioned he’d been watching election coverage on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.

“See?” Trump asked, spreading his arms wide. “I’m becoming diplomatic.”

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