NEW YORK — When Donald Trump walked onstage for his final rally before Wisconsin’s presidential primary, he found an unfamiliar sight: hundreds of empty seats.
The election eve rally Monday at the grand Milwaukee Theatre, which featured the heavily promoted campaign return of the GOP front-runner’s wife, was intended as a capstone of Trump’s three-day blitz through the state. A big-enough victory could have put Trump on a path to clinch the number of delegates needed to win the nomination before the party’s convention in July.
Instead, the half-filled room was an ominous harbinger: He ended up losing to rival Ted Cruz by 13 percentage points on Tuesday.
Trump still holds a solid lead in the race, but the stinging defeat was evidence that Trump’s unorthodox campaign — run by largely inexperienced operatives and fueled by the candidate’s sheer force of personality — had hit a wall.
The ever-confident Trump canceled his plans for the rest of the week, hunkered down and confronted fears that he was being outmaneuvered.
For nearly a year, the celebrity businessman had kept away from the trappings of a more conventional campaign operation. But days after the Wisconsin loss, he relented on that front as he tries to recapture his momentum and gear up for a potential general election race against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Trump is bringing in new staff, including a seasoned Washington operative to run his efforts at the convention, where the nomination appears more likely than ever to be decided. He also plans to place new focus on policy.
His team is making more strategic decisions as to how to make best use of Trump’s time — the campaign’s most valuable asset — starting with a refocused effort to run up the score in the April 19 primary in his home state of New York.
“In many ways, I think it’s a recognition that the successful primary campaign that Mr. Trump has run has to shift gears,” said adviser Ed Brookover, brought on board to help lead the delegate strategy.
With minimal spending on advertising and a small staff in comparison with Clinton’s, the Trump campaign has upended the political orthodoxy by riding large rallies and a knack for earning free media, and risen to the top of the GOP race.
But Wisconsin showed the limitations of that strategy.
The state’s Republican establishment coalesced around Cruz. Leading the way was Gov. Scott Walker, who had dropped out of the White House race last year and warned against Trump’s ascendance. The state’s influential conservative talk radio circuit proved an unfriendly venue to a candidate who has glided effortlessly through so many interviews.
Trump also found himself on the defensive after retweeted unflattering photo of Cruz’s wife, and committed what may have been the first costly gaffe of his bid when he bungling a question about abortion.
His insular campaign leadership, featuring a tiny inner circle led by campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who’s facing charges of battery after an incident with a reporter, seemed ill-equipped to compete in the bruising and complex fight to line up the support of delegates who will attend the national convention.
In Colorado, for instance, Cruz-supporting delegates swept local contests while Trump’s team made repeated flubs. The campaign fired its Colorado state director last Saturday, just after he had arrived. The new director, Patrick Davis, started running Trump’s fledgling operation on Wednesday, after Cruz had snapped up nearly one-sixth of the state’s delegates.
Davis insisted the Trump operation wasn’t worried.
“There’s not a concern. Colorado was just next for the campaign to focus on,” Davis said, adding that the addition of campaign veteran Paul Manafort to lead the delegate effort shows that Trump understands its importance. “This is the next phase of the campaign, and they understand that. This is when the hand-to-hand combat starts.”
Trump and his team had largely assumed he would have the race all but locked up after winning Florida in mid-March, and had largely failed to prepare for a potential fight at the convention. It was then, even before the resounding defeat in Wisconsin, when Roger Stone, a former Trump campaign aide and longtime adviser, put Trump in touch with Manafort, a veteran of numerous conventions.
As part of the campaign shuffle, Manafort will be “responsible for all activities that pertain to Mr. Trump’s delegate process and the Cleveland convention,” according to a campaign statement.
It is not clear precisely how Lewandowski now fits into the campaign operation. He is expected to continue to have a prominent role that will including traveling with the candidate – highly unusual for a campaign manager.
Manafort’s duties expected to be broad. He will start with a focus on the delegate efforts, as well as outreach to Washington lawmakers.
“I’m somewhat relieved,” Stone said. “This is a complicated process. … I think that Trump has turned this campaign to Manafort to take it in for a landing.”
After canceling a swing that would have included stops in Colorado and California, Trump is now planning to barnstorm across New York ahead of the primary. Winning at least 80 of the state’s 95 delegates is the goal. The rallies won’t go away; one was set for Sunday in Rochester.
“I’m inheriting a great situation,” Manafort told CNN on Friday, predicting that the race would be settled before the July convention. “All I’ve got to do is just sort of steer the ship in a little bit different direction.”
This report was written by Jonathan Lemire and Jill Colvin of the Associated Press.