CLEVELAND — Donald Trump sailed through the primaries, relying on his celebrity status and showmanship to overcome a glaring lack of political experience. But as the Republican National Convention opens here on Monday, and Trump enters a tougher phase of the 2016 presidential election, he is still struggling to deliver a consistent performance on the campaign trail.
Trump has had more than a month to prepare for this moment. After he clinched the Republican nomination in early June, party leaders and some of his closest advisers urged him to drop his racially divisive rhetoric, start fundraising and take the other steps needed to build a competitive general election campaign.
The real estate mogul agreed to make some adjustments, like replacing his controversial campaign manager Corey Lewandowski with a seasoned political operative. But Trump also committed several damaging unforced errors, from criticizing a judge’s ethnicity to the messy rollout of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate last week.
The chaotic vice presidential selection process underscored a central problem for Trump’s campaign: his insistence, even now, on veering dangerously off-script and making things up as he goes along.
Ever since launching his White House bid, Trump has largely gotten by on his natural talent and instincts alone. That was enough to carry him to the nomination. The question now: is Trump capable — or willing — to put in the work to reach a new level as a presidential candidate?
As the convention got under way on Monday, anti-Trump forces in the Republican Party seemed skeptical that Trump could improve.
“Anything is possible, but I think it’s unlikely based on what we’ve seen,” said Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who ran former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Super PAC before Bush dropped out of the presidential race earlier this year. “So far he hasn’t been able to.”
But Trump supporters pushed back on the notion that he should overhaul his approach to appeal to voters beyond his conservative base, arguing that his method was working. Cindy Costa, a member of the Republican National Committee, said she thought Trump would make a greater effort going forward to stay on message.
“I think he will realize that this is too big to fly by the seat of your pants, and he’ll get more focused,” Costa said.
Of course, members of Trump’s inner circle have for months been holding onto the hope that Trump would reign himself in, as have party insiders who fear that he could lose badly to Hillary Clinton in November and potentially also cost Republicans control of the Senate.
But both Trump and Clinton already have historically low approval ratings, and some political observers argued that it was too late for him to make a new impression.
“I imagine there’s another version of Donald Trump that’s more disciplined,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “He has been able to run a company, and he has been very successful at branding and self-promotion.”
But since Trump entered the presidential race, he seems to “believe based on his experience in the GOP primary that you can say crazy things and not worry about the effect,” Hamid added.
“There does seem to be something in his personality that makes it difficult for him to make these shifts.”
With less than four months left before the November election, time is running out for Trump to shift strategies and run as a more traditional candidate. The Republican convention represents perhaps Trump’s last chance to recast himself as a less divisive leader, though some Trump supporters insisted that Trump would have other opportunities to do so.
“I don’t think there’s any one make-or-break moment,” Lewandowski said in an interview.
Near the end of the primaries, Trump signaled that he was interested in staging an unorthodox convention, one featuring fewer political speeches and more appearances from sports stars and other celebrities. At one point, Trump floated a proposal to speak each night of the convention — possibly from different cities — in a format that would have been entirely unprecedented.
But in the days leading up to the RNC, party officials and the Trump campaign indicated that it would be not be that different from past conventions, albeit with an unusual candidate at the top of the ticket. In a small break from tradition, Trump will introduce his wife, Melania Trump, on stage at the Quicken Loans Arena on Monday night.
Beyond some small changes, however, the RNC is going to great lengths to produce an orderly affair, one that presents Trump in a warmer light and focuses on uniting a deeply divided party.
But there were early signs on Monday that the convention could get unruly anyway, despite the RNC and Trump campaign’s best efforts to control the proceedings.
On Monday afternoon, reports began circulating that a coalition of anti-Trump delegates had secured enough support to hold a roll call vote on the floor to approve the convention’s rules, a move intended to embarrass Trump by exposing the internal divisions still remaining in the party.
Soon after, the effort failed, but it pointed to the potential for more anti-Trump activity inside the arena as the week wears on.
The protests outside the secure zone around the Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland could also impact the convention in ways that nobody, including Trump, can predict.
Demonstrations from both pro- and anti-Trump groups started here over the weekend, and are slated to continue through the end of the convention. Ohio’s open-carry law, which allows gun owners to carry firearms in the city, has also raised fears that the protests could turn violent, a turn of events that would overshadow the action on the floor of the arena.
As the convention’s first evening was set to begin, Republicans sought to distance Trump from the protests taking place around the city.
“People are clearly smart enough to know the difference between those protests and the person who is the nominee of the party,” Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas who ran for president in 2016, said in an interview. “I don’t think it will undermine [Trump’s] message.”