When Donald Trump’s campaign chief Paul Manafort was forced out of his job last week, many political experts said it foreshadowed a campaign strategy that would “let Trump be Trump.” In other words, it would be Trump on steroids, launching wild attacks at every opportunity.
But instead of a wild-eyed Trump throwing out non-stop verbal barrages at his campaign stops, Trump’s staff have made some subtle, but noticeable changes in his stump speech, making it more direct and to the point and ending his normal tirades against the news media.
“We’re going to sharpen the message,” said Kelly Anne Conway, who was brought in to replace Manafort.
And she seems to have done exactly that – even though the candidate is still prone to veering off message and off his prepared text – with a stream of consciousness ad-lib that can cover just about anything.
For example, at a speech in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday, Trump suddenly went off on a jag about famous supporters of Hillary Clinton – “Hollywood celebrities in many cases celebrities that aren’t very hot anymore” – are the ones more likely to support Clinton.
It was a reminder for Trump that reporters are watching for anything that’s not in his prepared remarks.
That Tampa speech featured the most ad-libbing of any speech that Trump has given in the last week, but the GOP standard bearer avoided making his appearance into a high velocity, off the cuff rant.
The conventional wisdom was that without Manafort – and with the addition of Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon – Trump would go wildly on the attack against Hillary Clinton.
Instead, Trump seems to have done what Manafort wanted in the first place, and that is become a more disciplined campaign candidate on the stump.
Watching four Trump campaign stops this week in Ohio, Texas, Florida and Mississippi, this is what I’ve noticed:
+ Yes, he still goes off script. Yes, he likes to ad lib. But so far he has avoided doing himself any damage, and that keeps his headlines in check.
+ The insults are almost all gone in his speeches – Trump all but did away with the “Crooked Hillary Clinton” line; it has not been included in his written remarks over the last week – and I only remember hearing him say it once on Tuesday and again on Wednesday night.
+ Instead of name-calling, Trump in his speeches is much more focused on Clinton herself, with attacks on her emails, the Clinton Foundation and more.
+ Trump has changed his ways on the news media, barely criticizing the press in his stump speeches and dropping his familiar refrain that political reporters were “the world’s most dishonest people.” But Trump is still gouging media types on Twitter.
+ Off the trail, Trump’s press office has stopped sending out “MEDIA BIAS OFFENDER” emails, in which the campaign dumped on a specific news organization. Trump though is still tangling with different news outlets and reporters on Twitter.
+ When demonstrators interrupted his speech several times in Texas on Tuesday night, Trump did not add in his usual jab at the media, where he criticizes the TV networks for moving their cameras to see the protesters, but not show the size of his crowds.
+ Trump’s people have included several buzz phrases in his speech that have not regularly been used on the stump by the candidate – “I am your voice,” and “No one will be above the law” are two examples that I have heard.
+ When Trump goes off the cuff at his rallies, he often poses questions to the audience to get his point across – but his written speeches are much more direct. On August 9, Trump’s speech had 88 question marks in the final text. On August 23, there were two. One was stream of consciousness, one was not.
Trump really hasn’t gone “Full Trump” for a rally since an early August speech in Wilmington, North Carolina, when he created a furor by suggesting that Second Amendment supporters could find a way to stop Hillary Clinton.
By sticking to his script, Trump has not stepped on his own message, and given reporters something else to talk about – though he started to come close on Wednesday afternoon in Tampa.
Can he keep himself in check? Even Trump knows it helps his cause.
“I’m finding that I do better with voters, do better in the polls, when I’m on message,” Trump told the New York Times.
As he got near the end of his speech on Tuesday in Tampa, Trump had been adding in all sorts of stuff on the fly, when suddenly the wrap-up music started.
It was almost like his staff said, “ENOUGH!” and tried to give him the hook. In many ways, Trump is still Trump, no matter if the campaign tries to put a leash on him or not.