PATRICK HEALY and ALEX BURNS
Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.
After months of flailing attempts, Donald Trump has begun to recast his political message in more structured terms and wrestle with his temptation to go off script, as his campaign seeks to revive his fading candidacy and turn the focus this fall to Hillary Clinton’s honesty and integrity.
Working off a script from his reshuffled team of advisers, Trump is spending far less time attacking his fellow Republicans and picking fights with people other than Clinton, instead hammering away at her State Department tenure and her family’s charitable foundation.
He is aligning his stump speeches with his television advertising, vowing to crack down on violent crime and lawless illegal immigrants. Aware of his unpopularity with white moderate voters, especially women who have been turned off by his racially charged words, he is trying to show interest in the lives of African-Americans and Hispanics, even as he uses language that offends those groups.
Many Republicans, weary of repeated promises of a reborn Trump, remain skeptical that he can stick to his message over the next 11 weeks, and some say it is too late to persuade most voters to see him anew.
And the message he has delivered with fresh rigor, especially his emphasis on crime, still diverges widely from what most Republicans view as a winning pitch.
Even Trump is not sure he can be letter-perfect. He said in an interview that he still loved his freewheeling rallies of old, even when they got him in trouble, and that he would not always rely on prepared remarks or stop waging warfare with his Twitter account, even if he ended up overshadowing his advisers’ preferred arguments.
Yet Trump seems to be confronting the reality that his political fortunes could rise or fall on his ability to show restraint.
Over the last week, his new political team shared grim polling data with Trump and told him directly that he was in grave danger of losing if he did not sharpen and steadily prosecute strong arguments against Clinton. He came away persuaded and has been heartened by upticks in some recent polls.
“I have been staying on message more now because, ultimately, I’m finding that I do better with voters, do better in the polls, when I’m on message,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Trump ousted his chief strategist, Paul Manafort, last week and appointed two advisers who had more expertise with his brand of bare-knuckle public relations: Kellyanne Conway, a veteran pollster and cable news commentator, and Stephen K. Bannon, the chairman of Breitbart News, a conservative website.
Trump sees Conway as a polished and energetic defender who can help him attract female voters and shape the message that he wants to deliver, rather than impose one on him.
“Ultimately, I said I want to do this my way,” he said. “I had 80 days at the time, and I want to do it my way.”
Few presidential candidates have indulged their impulses and spoken off-the-cuff as much as Trump, a political outsider who is used to playing the tough guy in boardrooms and business negotiations. Assuming the role of party standard-bearer has been a struggle for him, and even now, as he tries to follow a new script, he has not abandoned the caustic tone that has defined his candidacy.
His evolving language on immigration reflects his conflicting desires: In the space of a few hours on Tuesday, he said he was open to “softening” his hard-line policies toward some people who had entered the country illegally and then whipped up a rally in Austin, Texas, with promises to make Mexico pay for a border wall.
His new pleas for support from black voters have also gone beyond the more measured appeals prepared by aides, including last week in Wisconsin, when he questioned why black voters would not vote for him over Clinton. Describing blacks as besieged by crime and bereft of economic opportunity, he asked, “What the hell do you have to lose?” In Ohio on Monday, he described American cities as more dangerous than foreign war zones and said Americans were routinely shot while walking down the street.
And at a rally in Tampa, Florida, on Wednesday, Trump still showed a penchant for going off script, reading the word “premeditation” as “premedication” during an attack on Clinton — and then, after a pause, saying he preferred “premedication,” an apparent nod to conspiracy theories that his allies have spread about her health.
Several Republican leaders and strategists, including those critical of Trump, said they had noticed adjustments in his performance since Conway became his campaign manager last week. Where previous advisers have sought to recraft the basics of his message, the new team around him appears intent mainly on arranging his favorite themes in a more consistent, linear format.
Still, with early voting set to begin in many states in late September and October, and given Trump’s history of popping off on Twitter, at rallies or in cable interviews at any moment, they said it was impossible to say whether his current message would endure and help turn the focus to Clinton’s character.
“Is what he’s doing enough for him to win? We’ve got to play the hand we’re dealt, so it will have to be enough, but it’s very hard to know,” said Matt Borges, the chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, who has urged Trump for months to adopt a more positive tone. “He just needs to focus on all of Hillary Clinton’s problems. But look, we’ve all been saying that for months.”
John Brabender, a Republican strategist who has worked extensively in swing states, said there was clearly an effort in progress to guide Trump toward a “more focused and more consistently delivered message,” within the limits of what comes naturally to him. But Brabender also suggested that Trump needed to do more.
“He should be talking about: What is the vision of what America is going to look like after four years of Donald Trump, and what does that mean for people’s lives?” Brabender said, allowing that Trump had improved on his practice of “making it up at every campaign stop they have.”
Trump, in the interview, argued that it took “more talent to do freethinking rallies” than to stick to a script, noting that he had to remember to make points about jobs and immigration while also engaging his audiences. He said that he was adjusting to his latest style of communicating, and that it sometimes felt at odds with his desire to entertain the crowds at his rallies.
There are signs of change. In an interview last month, shortly after FBI Director James B. Comey issued scathing comments about Clinton’s email practices as secretary of state, Trump said he could not “spend more than five minutes talking about her emails at my rallies, because people will lose interest, and you have to talk about other things to keep their attention.”
In the interview this week, Trump said he needed to “give people a mix of things at the rallies” and wanted “to be more on message.”
“You have to know where you need to go with your audience if you want to win them over,” Trump said. “So now we’re getting to Labor Day, and things will be different.”
Still, if aides have helped bring new focus to Trump’s stump speech, they have been unable to tame him on social media, where he continues to deliver outlandish attacks on all manner of adversaries, especially in the news media. He attacked the MSNBC hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough on Monday in extraordinarily personal terms and threatened to “tell the real story” about them.
Trump said he would not hesitate to do so again if they criticized him, or to consider taking on others — even if that meant stepping on his scripted message.
“If people hit me, I will certainly hit back,” he said. “That will never change.”
© 2016 New York Times News Service