AP Analysis: For at least this week, Trump playing to win

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Posted: Aug 20, 2016 2:48 AM
AP Analysis: For at least this week, Trump playing to win

WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump's turbulent summer has been shadowed by a nagging question: Does the Republican nominee actually want to win the presidency?

For at least this week, Trump answered with an emphatic yes.

He moved to steady his struggling campaign with a late-in-the-game staff shakeup, replacing controversial campaign chair Paul Manafort with a veteran pollster and a conservative media executive who shares his populist views. He delivered a series of more formal speeches, unheard of for a candidate who prefers unscripted rallies. And in an address Thursday evening, he uncharacteristically volunteered that he regretted some of his caustic comments — though he notably did not specify which ones.

"Sometimes in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don't choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that," Trump said during his appearance in Charlotte, North Carolina. "And believe it or not, I regret it — and I do regret it — particularly where it may have caused personal pain."

Taken together, the moves suggest a candidate still straining for a way to win a White House race rapidly slipping out of his reach. Opinion polls show Trump trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton nationally and in key battleground states less than three months from Election Day and just weeks before early voting begins in some locations.

There's no certainty Trump's shifting strategy can reverse that trend. It's not even clear whether Trump can maintain this new posture through the weekend. If his previous attempts at a "pivot" are any indication, the odds are low.

But what if Trump really is in the midst of a lasting reset?

The grim reality for the businessman is that it may not be enough to help him make up the significant ground he's lost.

Clinton's campaign has spent the summer flooding the airwaves with television ads, building out field operations in the states and attracting Republican support. Trump, meanwhile, has made little effort to reach out to new voters or capitalize on Clinton's vulnerabilities, including the FBI director's criticism of her email practices.

His attempts at rolling out policy proposals have been overshadowed by numerous controversies of his own making, none more damaging than his feud with an American Muslim family whose son was killed in Iraq while serving in the military.

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, just 33 percent of registered voters believe Trump has the temperament to be president — a damning assessment that won't be reversed by a few staffing changes and a conciliatory speech.

Trump's inability to course-correct has caused some political observers to question whether the real estate mogul actually wants to win the election and spend the next four years as president. There's speculation he's eying starting a media business after the campaign. He's even raised the prospect he might lose, saying he would go on a "very, very nice long vacation."

But the businessman's willingness to at least entertain a new approach at this stage of the campaign suggests he's not ready for that vacation just yet.

Indeed, the blueprint Trump has stuck to for much of this week has the potential to resonate with voters deeply frustrated with Washington and career politicians.

He's emphasized his outsider credentials, casting his missteps as a consequence of his lack of political polish. He's focused on his core message of boosting security by tightening immigration laws, both in speeches and in his first television ad of the general election. And he's stepped up his focus on Clinton, casting her as a dishonest agent of Washington.

"Trump, to his credit, wants to run a truly deep race of contrasts," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, said of the GOP nominee's goals for the coming weeks.

The relative steadiness of Trump's message was all the more surprising given that one of the staffing changes he made this week was bringing on Stephen Bannon, the combative head of Breitbart News, a pro-Trump website that frequently targets Republican leaders and promotes false conspiracy theories about Clinton. Bannon's hiring was seen as a signal Trump would double-down on some of his more controversial impulses, though that hasn't proven to be the case in the first few days of their new partnership.

Republicans inside and outside the campaign give much of the credit for Trump's stronger week to Kellyanne Conway, the new campaign manager. Conway has gained Trump's trust and is seen as someone who can communicate campaign weaknesses to the businessman better than Manafort, who irritated Trump with his emphasis on moderating in the general election.

Conway, in an interview on ABC, insisted it's Trump who is driving the reboot.

"All the people who have been saying, 'Let's get Trump to pivot, let's get him to be more presidential.' That is presidential," she said.

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Julie Pace has covered the White House and politics for the AP since 2007. Follow her on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jpaceDC