Two weeks after the media declared Donald Trump in deep trouble, he has bounced back—as a changed candidate.
I quickly noticed that Trump was toning it down, and that was on full display Tuesday night, when he celebrated his New York landslide with a strikingly short speech and referred to his vanquished rivals not with nasty nicknames but as “Senator Cruz” and “Governor Kasich.”
Some journalists, long accustomed to political operatives pulling the strings, are crediting Paul Manafort and others on Trump’s expanded team with the change of direction. But Trump got to be the front-runner by relying on his gut, and belatedly figured out that he needed to do what he kept musing about doing: acting more presidential.
Trump lowered the decibel level on his Twitter feed, practically scrubbing it of insults. He started doing fewer television interviews—he hasn’t been on a Sunday show in two weeks. He railed against the “rigged” primary process, but not against people in particular. He avoided the self-inflicted wounds of shifting answers on abortion and going after another candidate’s wife. In short, he was more disciplined.
At the same time, the breadth of his New York victory, winning nearly all of the 95 delegates at stake while Cruz was shut out, had an immediate impact on the punditry. Now many reporters and commentators are back to saying he is close to unstoppable, even if he falls short of the magic number of 1,237, which was pretty much the conventional wisdom until Wisconsin changed the narrative.
The #NeverTrump movement hasn’t given up. It’s possible the Trump train could still be derailed. But for now, at least, the candidate is giving his enemies less ammunition to work with.
Of course, not everyone is hailing Trump’s more cautious approach. Slate says that “this election has given us a good measure of just how far we’ve defined down presidential. Trump may indeed have been restrained on Tuesday night in celebrating his predictable but impressive win in the New York Republican primary, but he was certainly not presidential. He did his usual shtick (albeit at shorter length), mentioned the great businessmen in the room with him, told a story about a developer friend (undermining him at the same time), and inflated the night’s actual primary results…
“With Bernie all but cooked and Hillary in need of a new foil, the narrative now demanded that Trump be a candidate transformed.”
The narrative demanded it? Couldn’t Trump just as easily flipped the bird to the narrative-pushers?
The Trump-hating, Cruz-endorsing National Review all but discounted the vote in Trump’s home state:
“Trump got only a very modest bump from New York last night. And despite the breathless TV and print commentary from our New York–centered media, he still faces huge obstacles if he wants to get a sufficient number of delegates to be nominated on the first ballot. And if he is not nominated on the first ballot, given Cruz’s wildly successful delegate strategy, it is unlikely he will be nominated at all.”
The New York Times sees a two-front war, what it calls “incongruous, split-screen politics: While Mr. Trump draws adulatory crowds by the thousands to his rallies in arenas and airplane hangars, he has suffered setback after setback in the roadside hotels and high school auditoriums where Republican Party activists decide who will serve as delegates.”
And an internal Trump memo, which just happened to make its way to the Washington Post,
"The Cruz spin machine produces more lies than anything else. Our projections call for us to accumulate over 1400 delegates and thus a first ballot nomination win in Cleveland."
The Times editorial page, though, hasn’t given up, saying Cruz, “the thoroughly unlikable Texan, who has proved he will do or say nearly anything to win, has been raising weak ballot challenges aimed at disqualifying Mr. Kasich from various state contests…
“Mr. Kasich is not an exciting candidate, or even a political moderate. But he is the most sane-sounding individual in the Republican field, and has been from the start.”
Well, Kasich did win Trump’s district in Manhattan.
A similar debate is playing out on the Democratic side after Hillary Clinton trounced Bernie Sanders in her adopted home state. With Sanders close to being mathematically eliminated from a first-ballot win, the pundits are asking: What does Bernie want? Will he drop out, despite sitting on truckloads of money? Or will he at least tone down his attacks on Hillary?
Successful presidential candidates evolve and adapt. Clinton’s victory speech Tuesday night was far better and more passionate than most of her previous efforts.
And Trump, amazingly, saw the virtue of brevity. Now we’ll see, as he heads to favorable turf next week in such states as Pennsylvania and Maryland, whether he sticks to the script.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.