Republicans increasingly fear Donald Trump is missing valuable opportunities to build a winning case against Hillary Clinton, compounding their concerns about his campaign’s day-to-day decision making and seeming lack of preparedness for the general election.
While Clinton presses a highly coordinated effort to cast Trump as a reckless, self-serving businessman, he has spent the past few weeks mired in controversies of his own making. Among them: assailing a judge’s Mexican heritage, asserting that President Barack Obama sympathized with terrorists after the Orlando nightclub attacks, and trying to explain away his campaign’s dismal fundraising.
He’s also facing backlash for heading to Scotland to promote a golf resort later in this week in the midst of one of the most tumultuous stretches of his White House bid.
“People who are serious about running for president, don’t run off to Scotland where there are no votes,” said Rick Tyler, who previously advised Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. Tyler said Trump’s Scotland trip was one more example of the businessman failing to “understand the political beat” and the need to drive a consistent message against his Democratic rival.
Trump is making some moves this week aimed at steadying his campaign.
On Monday, he ousted controversial campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who was seen as an impediment to efforts to run a more traditional operation. On Tuesday, he sent out his first fundraising email. And on Wednesday, he’ll deliver a speech focused on what he describes as Clinton’s “failed policies and bad judgment.”
But with just over four months until Election Day, some Republicans fear the changes — if they hold — could be too little, too late. They point to Republican Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 campaign, which was far better funded and organized than Trump’s, but struggled against a massive Democratic messaging machine through the summer and never recovered.
“You have to build these narratives now. That’s what’s going to define the rest of the message in the campaign,” said Spencer Zwick, Romney’s fundraising chief in the 2012 campaign.
To be sure, Trump has hardly ignored Clinton. He’s blasted her “politically correct” response to the Orlando shootings and offered a point-by-point rebuttal on Twitter Tuesday to her hard-charging economic speech aimed at discrediting the Republican’s business credentials. Trump had planned to give his address on Clinton last week but delayed it until Wednesday because of the nightclub attacks.
But with Trump’s campaign nearly broke, he hasn’t booked any advertising to amplify any of those messages in battleground states. Clinton’s campaign and Democratic allies, meanwhile, have invested at least $41 million for commercials in states including Ohio, Florida and Nevada over the next six weeks.
Republicans have also grumbled that Trump’s controversies have overshadowed real weaknesses for Clinton, including a scathing State Department report on her email practices and a grim jobs report that could undermine her case for sticking with President Barack Obama’s economic agenda.
Some Republicans are also baffled by Trump’s decision to head overseas later this week — not to burnish his foreign policy credentials or meet with world leaders, but to attend the opening of one of his golf resort.
“It’s an unusual campaign, and it continues to be an unusual campaign,” Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, said Tuesday. “In every sense of the word.”
Democrats, too, have expressed surprise at Trump’s messaging missteps in the general election campaign, particularly given his effectiveness against his Republican rivals in the party’s primary.
“He defined his opponents before they could define him,” said Ben LaBolt, a former Obama adviser. “In many ways Clinton is moving to turn the tables on him right now.”
Trump allies cast Lewandowski’s firing this week as the start of a new phase for the campaign. The campaign formally announced the hiring of four staffers Tuesday, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort signaled on a conference call with aides that a rapid expansion would be coming soon.
Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who has been mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick, said he was “pretty excited” to learn of the changes.
“I think that what appears to be occurring over the last 24 hours is a movement in a direction that I think could be very, very positive,” Corker said.
Manafort has been tasked with running the campaign but the influence of Trump’s children has steadily grown in recent months. The children — Don Jr., Eric, Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner — played a key role in Lewandowski’s ouster and have taken a larger role in shaping the candidate’s speeches, including his scheduled takedown of Hillary Clinton on Wednesday.
But as with everything involving Trump, the billionaire appears to be the only one truly in charge.
“I think I want to be who I am. I don’t want to be a phony like Hillary Clinton,” he told NBC’s “Today,” ”I want to be what I am.”
AP writers Erica Werner, Jill Colvin and Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.
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