Trump barrels into crucial stretch

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NEW YORK — Donald Trump is facing a crucial stretch in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination.

During a 20-minute interview with The Hill at Trump Tower on Tuesday, the real estate mogul appeared confident that he can finish off rivals Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich and win the party’s nod. 

But he clearly is readying for a ­convention fight if he doesn’t get the required 1,237 delegates. 

{mosads}Trump stormed to the front of the Republican pack last summer and fall and carried that momentum into the winter. But to secure the nomination, set to take place in fewer than 100 days in Cleveland, he will need to win the spring and thwart the GOP establishment’s Never Trump movement.

The billionaire businessman has defied predictions of his impending political doom for nearly a year while withstanding a slew of controversies. But his Teflon coat has appeared to show holes in recent weeks, as his head-to-head numbers against Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton have suffered.

Republicans in Washington have been startled by Trump’s plummeting poll numbers among women, most notably married women, a voting bloc that is usually a GOP strength. 

Trump on Tuesday waved off any concerns that Clinton would beat him. 

“It’s a totally different election. I would beat Hillary so badly her head would spin,” he said.

The 69-year-old reality TV star noted that he has taken many arrows in the back from the 16 other Republican presidential candidates who have run this cycle and said the task now is simply to close out the race: “I took them all out and I’m here with the two leftovers.” 

In a development that was unthinkable a year ago, party figures who have been critical of Cruz, including former White House contender Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have endorsed the unpopular Tea Party lawmaker. Some privately think Cruz would lose to Clinton, but they say he is more predictable — and therefore safer for down-ballot candidates — than Trump.

Trump’s pursuit of the nomination has been marked by a consistent theme: fighting the Republican establishment and fighting for fairness in the process. In a July 2015 interview with The Hill, the New York tycoon said he would seriously consider running as a third-party candidate if the GOP didn’t treat him fairly. Trump and his rivals subsequently signed a party loyalty pledge, but talk of a third-party run has continued.

Now Trump is claiming the Republican National Committee is stacking the deck against him through its presidential primary process rules. On Tuesday he lambasted RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, saying he should be “ashamed” of what’s happening.

But the RNC is standing by its process and pointing out that no rule has been recently changed. 

Trump in many ways is beginning to act like a cautious front-runner who can taste the nomination. On Tuesday, he declined to answer questions about whether Cruz is qualified to be president or whether he would invite 2012’s nominee, Mitt Romney, and the influential Bush family to address the Republican convention in Cleveland. 

He has long promised to try to act more presidential, and this could be the beginning of that phase. 

The primary map looks favorable to Trump, with the businessman a heavy favorite in delegate-rich New York and Pennsylvania, for example.

Yet Cruz is expected to win more delegates in Wyoming this weekend, and has claimed that his victory in Wisconsin earlier this month was a turning point in the race.

Trump must win more than 60 percent of the remaining delegates to secure the nomination on the first ballot.

The problem for Republicans is that it’s very hard to see how the party unites after the convention in Cleveland ends.

The NeverTrump movement would likely continue if the celebrity businessman were to win the GOP nod. And if he doesn’t win the nomination, would Trump go quietly in the night and offer a hearty endorsement of the Republican standard-bearer? It seems unlikely.

Other highlights of The Hill’s interview with Trump:

• Trump will not be attending this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. At the 2011 annual dinner, President Obama poked fun at the mogul repeatedly, and the press coverage did not sit well with him. 

“I was asked by every single group of media available to mankind [to attend this year]. But I’ve decided not to go, do you know why? I would have a good time and the press would say I look like I wasn’t having a good time.”

Trump claims he enjoyed the 2011 dinner: “I had a great time. I was very honored by all of the attention. The president told joke after joke and it was good. They were all very nice and delivered nicely and I had a great time and told the press. For four years, I’ve read what a miserable time I had.”

He added, “The press is dishonest. If the press would be honest, I’d go because I’d have a good time. … But no matter how good a time I had, the press would say, ‘Donald Trump was miserable.’ What would I need that for?”

Trump last year attended the dinner, nicknamed Nerd Prom, before he announced he was running for president.

• Loyalty matters in the veep pick, but it’s not a litmus test. Trump created some buzz in a USA Today article this week by apparently floating some possible running mate selections, including his rivals for the 2016 nomination. But he said he’s not thinking about his No. 2 just yet.

“Just so you understand — the question was, ‘Do I like these people?’ I like all of those people but I wasn’t talking about them as vice president. I like all of those people. … It’s tough for them to like me because I hit them very hard. If you ask Jeb Bush if he likes me, he’ll get a case of the shakes. … I have not considered a vice presidential pick. I don’t even think about vice president right now.”

Asked if he will pick a Trump supporter or if that doesn’t matter, he said, “I always like to be loyal to the people that support me, but not necessarily.”

•If he wins the nomination, Trump says he expects that the chairman of the very important RNC Rules Committee should be a backer of his campaign. 

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Lindsey Graham Ted Cruz
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