Trump stumbles after surge in polls

Trump stumbles after surge in polls
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After several weeks of positive news cycles and polling gains brought about by a more disciplined campaign, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Memo: Will Mueller play hardball with Trump? Mexican presidential candidate vows to fire back at Trump's 'offensive' tweets Elizabeth Warren urges grads to fight for 'what is decent' in current political climate MORE has committed a series of stumbles in recent days that experts see as a return to “bad Trump.” 

GOP strategists are urging Trump to get back on track before the first presidential debate in nine days, while Democrats are exhaling after a week of panic brought on by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump Jr. met with Gulf adviser who offered help to win election: report Voters Dems need aren't impressed by anti-waterboarding showboating After year of investigation, Trump can rightly claim some vindication MORE's own setbacks.

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Trump has seemed to slip back into his primary-election style, stirring up controversy and lashing out at critics as he rode a wave of quickly improving poll numbers.

Democratic strategist Jim Manley said the latest batch of Trump incidents have prompted him to issue a “mea culpa” after he publicly fretted about a newly-disciplined Trump.

“A couple days ago, I was somewhat concerned with Trump’s ability to show some discipline on the campaign trail,” Manley said. “After last night, I won't ever have to worry about that again.

“I can't believe I fell for it for a couple days but that's not going to happen in the future. The man is utterly incapable of sticking to a plan.”

Thursday morning, Trump lashed out at a black pastor, calling her a “nervous mess.” She had interrupted Trump's speech a day earlier at her Flint, Mich., church when he began attacking Clinton, saying he was not invited to “make a political speech.”

In a Washington Post interview published later that day, Trump refused to say whether he believed that President Obama was born in the U.S. — even though his running mate and his campaign manager had both said that he renounced his “birther” conspiracy theory.

Trump's campaign quickly issued a statement insisting he didn't really believe the conspiracy he spent years pushing, and they blamed Clinton’s 2008 campaign for first starting birtherism — a claim that has been debunked.

Hoping to clear up the controversy on Friday, Trump convened reporters at his new Washington hotel to make an announcement about his views on Obama's birthplace. He hyped it that morning on Fox Business as a "major announcement."

What played out was more of a promotion for his campaign and hotel. For more than 20 minutes, Trump paraded a slew of veterans to the podium, where they took turns praising him, before he finally gave a brief statement.

“Hillary Clinton in her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” Trump said. “I finished it. President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe true commander in tweet Meghan Markle's pre-royal 'finishing lessons' and an etiquette of equality Hannity on Acosta claim he was tough on Obama: 'Only thing missing were the pom-poms' MORE was born in the United States, period. Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”

He left without taking questions, and led photographers on a tour of his hotel while his campaign blocked reporters from joining.

The event ignited a firestorm of criticism not only from his Democratic opponents but also journalists, who were incensed that they had been duped into essentially giving the candidate free air time to promote his campaign.

Then at a rally in Miami that night, Trump drew more criticism when he said Clinton’s bodyguards should be disarmed because of her pro-gun control stance.

“Take their guns away,” he said. “She doesn’t want guns … let’s see what happens to her. Take their guns away, OK? It’d be very dangerous.”

Democrats erupted in anger. Clinton's campaign called on GOP leaders to denounce the comments, and Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDem senator: I support 'real' Second Amendment, not 'imaginary' one Frustrated Trump wants action on border wall, immigration Michigan Dem: Detroit-style pizza 'sweeping the nation' MORE (D-Conn.) tweeted to Trump that "blood will be on your hands" if a supporter killed Clinton.

The rapid-fire controversies this week came after Trump had made significant gains in the polls, buoyed by Clinton's "basket of deplorables" gaffe and recent health concerns.

In the wake of the Democratic convention at the end of July, Clinton was enjoying a comfortable lead in most of the polls, but Trump began gaining ground in late August.

Many strategists credited the shift to Trump’s campaign leadership overhaul. On Aug. 17, he installed veteran GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager and former Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon as the campaign’s CEO.

Since then, Trump has largely delivered a focused message, reading off teleprompters at his rallies and avoiding unscripted gaffes. Trump was knocked off that message this week.

“When Trump is not on message and stirring controversy, he seems bored,” GOP strategist Nino Saviano said. “The media, for its part, doesn’t feel that much different.”

“He’s been doing what he wants the way he wants his whole life,” said Democratic media strategist Brad Bannon. “He got the new management team in and they pinned him down for a few weeks, but it was inevitable he’d go rogue again.

“He just doesn’t have the discipline to stay within the game plan. It was inevitable he’d go back to bad Trump.”

The first debate on Sept. 26 will be a test for whether Trump is actually evolving into a new candidate that is more palatable to the general electorate.

“He is who he is and I don’t believe that person is going to play well with a general audience,” said Manley, the Democratic strategist. “The base is still going to love him but I think more and more Americans are going to be turned off by what they see.”

Trump faltered at times during the Republican primary debates, but his combativeness and the large number of candidates onstage helped make up for it. When he goes head-to-head with Clinton, he'll likely have to change up his debating style.

GOP operative and Hill contributor Matt Mackowiak said that appearing onstage with Clinton may lend some credibility to Trump, but it's unlikely that the debate holds much possibility of an upside for his campaign.“I don’t think he could win the race in the first debate, but he could certainly lose it,” he said.

“Part of the reason the debate is so important is that you can’t change perception after the fact,” Mackowiak added. “It’s like a tsunami, you can’t change the direction of a tsunami.”