Donald Trump's new campaign team has only been in place for a few days and the changes are already noticeable. The Republican presidential nominee now delivers prepared remarks even at his rallies. His tone is more presidential. He is finally running his first ads of the general election.
Will new campaign chief executive Stephen Bannon and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway prove to be the dynamic duo Trump needs to get his flagging presidential campaign back on track? Or will their stylistic differences produce the kind of divisions that plagued the partnership between Paul Manafort and Corey Lewandowski?
Bannon's hire got the most attention and dismayed Republican insiders. Reports announcing his formal role in the campaign referred to him as a "media firebrand," "the most dangerous political operative in America," a "legitimately sinister figure," a bare-knuckled brawler.
Under Bannon's leadership, the Breitbart news and commentary site has been increasingly drawn to the nationalist, populist version of conservatism animating Trump's "America First" politics. The site has also bitterly opposed party leaders — leaked emails showed Bannon himself describing them in less than flattering terms — and almost singlehandedly drove Paul Nehlen's failed primary challenge against House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Conway has never run a presidential campaign, but she is widely respected in Republican circles as a consummate political professional. She is a passionate pro-life social conservative who only boarded the Trump train once he had vanquished all his primary opponents. And Trump's recent speeches expressing regret for hurtful words, reaching out beyond his base, sounding more consistent with the seriousness of the job he is seeking, sound a lot more like her than Bannon.
"Bannon, like the candidate, relies a lot more on his gut," said Republican strategist Liz Mair, a Gary Johnson supporter who was active against Trump during the primaries. "Kellayanne is poll-tested and data-driven."
Trump has in recent days sought to push back against concerns that have plagued his presidential campaign: that he is biased against whole voting blocs, that he shoots from the hip a little too much, that doesn't take the presidency seriously enough.
The risk is that this could recreate the split between Manafort, who stepped down as campaign chairman Friday, and Lewandowski, who was fired as campaign manager in June. Manafort, a veteran political operative, originally brought in to work a contested convention for Trump, was pushing for a more professional campaign. Lewandowski believed in letting Trump be Trump.
Manafort and Lewandoswki always publicly denied that there was any tension, though Lewandoswki certainly seemed pleased with Manfort's ouster. During the Republican convention, Lewandowski, now a CNN contributor, appeared to suggest Manafort should resign if he approved a Melania Trump speech that contained lines resembling Michelle Obama's 2008 Democratic convention remarks. When another Trump employee took responsibility instead, Lewandowski defended her.
Temperamentally, Trump is always more inclined to side with someone who wants to let him be himself. In the past, he has never remained scripted long.
It could, however, be a false choice. The objective may not to be to try to turn Trump into a totally conventional presidential candidate, which several GOP insiders the Washington Examiner spoke to (most of them Trump critics) found neither possible nor desirable. Trump has a basic sales pitch to the voters on law and order, national security, trade, immigration and jobs, fitting into a larger narrative about the need for change versus continued rule by corrupt insiders like Hillary Clinton.
An effective Trump campaign could focus on that message and remove as much of the extraneous attacks, grudge matches and other ambient noise as possible. Maybe that could reassure nervous Republicans and reach voters who are not working-class whites who perceive themselves to be globalization's losers while still letting Trump be Trump — if Trump being himself means being a populist, not someone who grabs headlines with fights that don't benefit him.
If so, perhaps no conflict between Bannon and Conway will ever emerge. A big problem with Manafort's attempts to discipline Trump is that they came across as if he was trying to get an eight-year-old boy to eat his vegetables. Conway reportedly enjoys a good rapport with Ivanka Trump and in concert with Bannon may be able to keep the candidate focused in a way that is more comfortable for him.
"I think they will make it work," said Jeffrey Lord, a former political director for President Ronald Reagan who has emerged as a leading Trump supporter on CNN. "With 80-plus days left, there is no time for anything but winning.
"Reagan fired his campaign manager, press secretary and political director the day of the New Hampshire primary, and won the nomination," Lord continued. "After the convention, he shifted and made Bush's campaign manager, Jim Baker, his new campaign manager. Baker had to deal with campaign chair Bill Casey and Reagan's Ed Meese and Mike Deaver. He did and it worked. This can be a great team and I really think they have great potential."
If not, there will be plenty of time for finger-pointing after the election.