Priebus: Shakeup Will Soon Push Trump Past Clinton

Priebus: Shakeup Will Soon Push Trump Past Clinton
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Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus likes what he is seeing from Donald Trump one week after the nominee’s campaign shakeup -- so much so that he predicted the GOP standard-bearer would be tied or ahead of Hillary Clinton after Labor Day.

The fingerprints of both CEO Stephen Bannon and Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway are visible in Trump’s messaging this week, from his call for a special prosecutor to investigate the Clinton Foundation in the wake of new email revelations to his backing away from his earlier calls for mass deportation of undocumented immigrants.

"It's going to be important for us and for Donald Trump to continue down this measured path that he's on, and if he does that I think he's going to be tied or ahead at or just after Labor Day,” Priebus told reporters on a conference call Tuesday.

But that measured path requires heavy footwork by the campaign in reconciling Trump's hard-line approach to immigration, for example, with a more moderate general election message: Trump is now drawing attention to himself by “softening” his stance on a cornerstone issue in his campaign -- an evolution that could invite criticism from multiple angles. During a town-hall-style interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity Tuesday night, Trump said of deportation proceedings, "There certainly can be a softening because we're not looking to hurt people.”

And while Trump is also seizing an opening to capitalize on Clinton's controversies, he’s also shown that old habits die hard. Amid news that former Secretary of State Colin Powell is pushing back at Clinton for claims that he advised her to use a private email server, Trump meanwhile was lashing out at the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” for their coverage of him, threatening to expose an alleged affair. Trump’s campaign hasn’t reinstated access for multiple news outlets it had banned, and the candidate took to Twitter to criticize Washington Post journalists over a forthcoming book about him, even though he participated in lengthy interviews for it.

Trump and surrogates also have continued to raise questions and elevate conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health, with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani saying evidence can be found on the Internet that she is not physically fit to be president.

On Monday, Trump seemed to have found a message intended to rally Republicans and take advantage of the release of 15,000 additional Clinton emails discovered by the FBI, some of which exposed a broken firewall between the Clinton family foundation and Hillary Clinton’s State Department. The GOP nominee called for a special prosecutor to investigate.

An analysis by the Associated Press on Tuesday found that while evidence of illegal activity is lacking, the emails reveal the frequency of intersections between those who met with Clinton in her official capacity as the nation’s top diplomat and those who donated to the foundation. At least 85 of 154 people from outside the government who met with Clinton at State donated to the foundation or pledged commitments, the AP found. Last week, her campaign announced the foundation would stop accepting foreign donations if Clinton is elected.

Priebus praised Trump’s call for an investigation into the matter by an independent counsel, and argued that conflicts of interest and possible ethical violations would persist in a Clinton White House.

Republicans have long seen an opening to use the perceptions of pay-to-play to exploit Clinton’s vulnerabilities when it comes to trust and honesty, but their own presidential nominee has passed up such opportunities by getting in his own way. In many respects, Trump’s outsider, anti-politician message aligns well with these charges, tapping into voters’ distrust and dislike of the political establishment.

Priebus believes that that message, combined with others, could help bring Trump back from significant deficits in national and battleground state polls. “People want to buy the change product,” he said, noting that the RNC has been working well with the new Trump management team and he feels good about where things are heading.

But there are also growing pains for the new team just 2 ½ months from Election Day. In an effort to broaden his appeal, Trump has been editing his strict and controversial immigration policy, which had been the cornerstone of his candidacy. The campaign scrapped a policy speech planned in Colorado this week in order to take more time to “fine tune” the proposals, particularly one regarding what to do with the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.

In an interview Monday with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, Trump pointed to the Obama administration’s deportation policy as a model, saying he would use existing laws to deport “all of the bad ones” and have the rest “go through the process.” He also backed away from his earlier support for the Eisenhower administration's controversial “Operation Wetback” deportation program.

Trump has also tried to not alienate supporters drawn to his tough immigration message, reassuring them during a rally in Ohio this week that he still planned to build “the wall.”

Trump’s continued overtures to African-American and minority voters -- an effort aimed to make himself more palatable to traditional Republican voters put off by his rhetoric -- has been criticized for being both out of touch and condescending. He ventured off script this week by describing America’s inner cities as worse than war zones.

While the new management team’s influence has been apparent, strategists caution that Trump still holds the reins to his future.

“The biggest challenge between now and November is, if he wants to win, can he stay focused on message so that [gets] people to give him a second chance?” said Republican strategist Ron Christie. “The only person who can make that happen is Donald Trump. It’s not staff or consultants. The real question is, does he want to win or not?”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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