Trump surrogates say GOP front-runner 'projecting an image' during primaries

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Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump's top lieutenants told skeptical GOP leaders Thursday that their candidate has been "projecting an image" so far in the 2016 primary season and "the part that he's been playing is now evolving" in a way that will improve his standing among general election voters.

In a recording of the closed-door meeting obtained by the Associated Press, Trump's newly hired senior aide, Paul Manafort, made the case to Republican National Committee members that Trump has two personalities: one in private and one onstage.

"When he's out on the stage, when he's talking about the kinds of things he's talking about on the stump, he's projecting an image that's for that purpose," Manafort said, adding "You'll start to see more depth of the person, the real person. You'll see a real different guy."

Manafort said Trump had acknowledged the need to moderate his personality ahead of a possible general election campaign.

"The part that he's been playing is evolving into the part that now you've been expecting, but he wasn't ready for, because he had first to complete the first phase" he claimed. "The negatives will come down. The image is going to change."

The message was welcomed by some party officials but criticized by others who suggested it raised doubts about his authenticity.

"He's trying to moderate. He's getting better," said former presidential candidate Ben Carson, a Trump ally who was part of the GOP's front-runner's RNC outreach team.

While Trump's top advisers were promising Republican leaders that the GOP front-runner would moderate his message, the candidate was telling voters he wasn't ready to act presidential.

"I just don't know if I want to do it yet," Trump said during a raucous rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Thursday that was frequently interrupted by protesters.

"At some point, I'm going to be so presidential that you people will be so bored," he said, predicting that the size of his crowds would dwindle if he dialed back his rhetoric.

As Trump continues to rail against "a rigged" nomination process, he sent Manafort and his newly hired political director, Rick Wiley, to help improve relationships with party officials at the RNC's spring meeting in Hollywood, Fla.

"He might not win some of these blue states, but you can make the Democrats spend money and time," Wiley said.

Trump's team also signaled to RNC members a fresh willingness to dip into the New York real estate mogul's personal fortune to fund his presidential bid, in addition to helping the national committee raise money, a promise that comes just as Trump launches his first big television advertising campaign in a month.

His campaign reserved about $2 million worth of air time in soon-to-vote Pennsylvania and Indiana, advertising tracker Kantar Media's CMAG shows.

"He's willing to spend what is necessary to finish this out. That's a big statement from him," Manafort said in the briefing.

Trump is increasingly optimistic about his chances in five states holding primary contests Tuesday: Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. He is now the only Republican candidate who can possibly collect the 1,237-delegate majority needed to claim the nomination before the party's July convention.

Chief rival Ted Cruz hopes Trump will fall short of a nomination-clinching delegate majority so that he can turn enough delegates to his side at the convention to give him the prize.

The political posturing came as Trump sparked new criticism by addressing the debate over which bathrooms transgender people should use.

Speaking at a town-hall event on NBC's "Today" show Thursday, Trump said North Carolina's bathroom law has caused unnecessary strife and transgender people should be able to choose which bathroom to use.

"There have been very few complaints the way it is," Trump said. "People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate."

Cruz lashed out at Trump's "support of grown men using women's restrooms." The Texas senator called Trump's position "a reckless policy that will endanger our loved ones."

Trump also said the plan to swap Jackson for Tubman on the $20 bill is an act of "pure political correctness." He and Carson have both suggested putting Tubman on the $2 bill instead.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.