Trump builds his political machine
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Donald Trump is assembling a team of political strategists and campaign staffers charged with sustaining his lead in the Republican presidential polls.

While strategists say Trump still has a ways to go to catch up to his rivals for the White House, he is taking aggressive steps to build a political machine, particularly in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

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With his popularity among Republican voters seemingly impervious to controversy — even rival Jeb Bush has called his candidacy a "phenomenon" — the billionaire businessman is in an enviable position heading into the first Republican debate on Thursday in Cleveland. 

"The proof is in the pudding: He's winning. So by definition doing the right thing. ... People like his attitude. He's a scrapper. He fights," one political strategist said.

"He jumped into the race and stunned everyone by soaring to the top of polls — and maintaining a lead," the strategist said. "Now he's building the infrastructure around it and he's putting together a pretty good campaign team."

Earlier this week, Trump announced that he'd hired Michael Glassner, a former chief of staff to 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Glassner was also an adviser to former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) during his presidential campaign.

Glassner is joining a Trump team that is expanding on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — key caucus and primary states that are often decisive in the march to the nomination.

While strategists suggested that Trump is lagging behind the infrastructure of other campaigns, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski expressed confidence that their organizing efforts are on track.

"I don't think we're outnumbered at all," said Lewandowski, a former director at the conservative Americans for Prosperity (AFP). "The poll numbers show that Mr. Trump is the leading candidate ... his message to 'Make America Great Again' is resonating."

Lewandowski said that Glassner "is going to work to ensure that Mr. Trump has the best grassroots network in the country."

Trump has nabbed top political strategists in Iowa and South Carolina who had a role in pulling off major political upsets in those states during the 2012 Republican cycle.

Veteran strategist Chuck Laudner is spearheading the efforts in Iowa, managing a team of about 10 full-time staffers.

Laudner's claim to fame was being one of the chief architects of Rick Santorum's stunning Iowa caucus political victory in 2012, which propelled him forward to an overall second-place finish in the delegate count behind Mitt Romney.

"We're going to run the best ground game in the country out there," Lewandowski said. "Chuck is the best political operative in the state of Iowa."

In South Carolina, Trump has a team of about seven full-time staffers working to make inroads in the state. He's nabbed Ed McMullen, the state's GOP co-chairman, and Gerri McDaniel, who worked on Gov. Nikki Haley's (R) gubernatorial campaign and Newt Gingrich's 2012 presidential campaign. 

Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House, won the South Carolina primary in 2012.

In New Hampshire, Matt Ciepielowski is leading up a team of about five full-time Trump staffers, and Lewandowski said they're "quickly assembling a top team." Ciepielowski is a former AFP field director for the Granite State.

Strategists and political watchers noted that Trump's political rivals — including Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — had a head start when it comes to the ground game.

So while Trump's argument that he's a political outsider might resonate in the polls, he still faces a challenge in converting crowds to votes — especially in Iowa, said Donna Hoffman, political science department head at the University of Northern Iowa.

"Trump seems to be activating people who are disaffected by the political system," Hoffman said. "Still, he's behind the ball a little bit in terms of infrastructure in the state. But it's not too late — if he wants to organize here, he's got the money and the name recognition."

Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist, said that Trump's perceived political strength of saying what he thinks and speaking off the cuff could hurt him over the long term.

"No matter who he hires, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHoyer pushes White House for briefing on Russian election interference Carrier Union leader: Trump 'lied his a-- off' about deal Top Dem: Congress could need brief funding extension MORE is no doubt running his own campaign," Wilson said. "He's his own spokesman, campaign manger and political consultant. Sometimes there's a point where that's not necessarily a good thing."