On road to general election, Trump veers off message

By Dan Balz analysis

It's been almost five weeks since Donald Trump's victory in Indiana made him the presumptive Republican nominee.

Here's what has happened since: He's wasted time, proved to be a sore winner and veered sharply off message. He's put a higher premium on settling scores than finding a script that will appeal to a wider, general-election audience. Will it cost him?

Trump no doubt takes comfort in national polls that show a close contest against Hillary Clinton. Over the past month, her lead has shrunk dramatically. Bernie Sanders runs better against Trump than she does, although the senator from Vermont has no easy way of becoming the Democratic nominee. Trump, who consumes polls like candy, must like what he sees, but he should still be asking how he gets to an electoral college majority.

For Trump, this could have been a time for magnanimity and for beginning to show that he wants to reach beyond the loyal and passionate base of supporters that sustained him through the primaries. The electorate in the general election will be different and decidedly more diverse than the one that made him the GOP standard-bearer.

So far, he has shown no willingness to acknowledge that.

Trump can't seem to let go of any perceived slight or grievance. He can't accept the idea of winning graciously. He still feels disrespected, by fellow Republicans and especially the media. He feels he hasn't received all the credit he deserves. He thinks that even some of his losses during the nomination battle were worthy of more praise than he got at the time.

Every nominee goes through bad stretches. It's in the nature of the business. Clinton has had hers and will have more. But it's hard to think of any previous presumptive nominee who has suffered through such a rocky period in the weeks after claiming the nomination. In the aftermath of a remarkable achievement, he has seemed as angry as ever and at times off stride.

Over the past five weeks, Trump has come under ever-closer scrutiny, as is customary for the nominee of a major political party. Close inspection of past decisions, actions and records is part of the process of helping voters understand who might become the next president. Trump has recoiled at what is normal and necessary.

The run of stories about Trump has been unrelenting, raising questions about his business acumen, which hit especially close to home for someone who has been celebrated as the embodiment of success. One article described him as a celebrity businessman who posed secretly as his own PR agent. Another revealed that the candidate who refuses to release his tax returns paid no taxes years ago, according to a 1981 New Jersey gambling regulatory report.

Trump also was hit with tough questions about whether he had lived up to his claim of raising US$6 million for veterans at an event in Iowa this past January. It turned out that one missing million-dollar donation was his own. Pressed on the fundraising pledge to veterans, he held a news conference to provide details and then used most of the time to vilify the media.

Newly released documents from a lawsuit alleging fraud by Trump University raised other troubling questions about the practices of officials at that institution. Trump insists he will win that suit. But he opened a new avenue of attacks by going after the Mexican heritage of US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is based in San Diego and is overseeing the case.

Under fire for doing so, Trump ramped up his attacks, first in an interview with the Wall Street Journal and then in another with CNN's Jake Tapper. Trump accused Curiel, who was born in the United States, of bias against him because, he said, the judge's heritage conflicts with Trump's proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border. Trump rejected assertions that what he was doing was the very definition of racism.

As he has engaged in these battles, he has begun to feel the full force of the Clinton campaign and its allies. On Friday, Clinton delivered what was billed as a major foreign policy address. It was actually a purely political attack against Trump, albeit one effectively crafted and delivered for maximum impact.

He and his supporters think Clinton has received a free pass, in comparison to the scrutiny he's now receiving. Clinton has drawn considerable scrutiny over the course of her campaign, with some questions still to be addressed. She has been the focus of a series of damaging stories in the media about her private email server, has been criticised by a State Department inspector general's report, and is still under FBI investigation. Trump has reached his own verdict. Clinton, he said, "has to go to jail".

Trump has had success in bringing more and more Republican elected officials to his side, if not exactly uniting the party. House Speaker Paul Ryan finally said on Friday that he would vote for Trump in November. Then on Saturday, Ryan disavowed what Trump had said about Curiel. Ryan said he would continue to take issue with Trump as necessary but added that he hopes that won't be often. The evidence suggests otherwise.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Photo / AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Photo / AP

Trump can't resist airing his frustration with those still outside the tent. He needlessly attacked Republican New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, who admittedly has not said good things about him. Now he has done a 180-degree turn, telling the Santa Fe New Mexican that he wants her support and has always respected her.

Trump has allowed himself to become mired in these petty battles rather than pivoting to a general-election message and strategy. He has spent needless time in California ahead of the state's Wednesday primary, which will have no bearing on the GOP nomination, rather than concentrating on swing states he must convert in order to be competitive in the electoral college.

He claims he will put California in play in November. California hasn't voted for a Republican presidential nominee since 1988. In the past six elections, Republicans have lost California by 13, 13, 12, 10, 24 and 23 percentage points.

The latest Field Poll shows him losing California to Clinton by 19 points and to Sanders by 29 points. Yet the most significant thing Trump has done campaigning in the state is to attack Curiel, risking further backlash from a Hispanic community whose power in elections continues to grow.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said several times in recent days that he worries that Trump could do to Hispanics what Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign did to African Americans. Goldwater's opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 turned African Americans into the most solid bloc of voters in the Democratic coalition.

Everyone says it's early, that the general election is still months away, that Clinton can't even shake off Sanders, that Democrats could have a tumultuous convention, that fear of Clinton will unify all Republicans and that will be enough to win. Maybe.

What if the period between now and the conventions turns out to be the decisive phase in shaping and defining the choice for November? If that's the case, Trump has done little to help himself in the first weeks of that competition.

- Washington Post

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