The two Donald Trumps

Story highlights

  • GOP still coming to grips with Trump as standard-bearer
  • Trump is showing signs of the type of nominee he'll be

Washington (CNN)Donald Trump is still Donald Trump.

But a week into his dramatic transition from leading a revolt against the Republican hierarchy to becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, Trump seems caught between two versions of himself.
He's the political bulldozer familiar from the primary season, remorselessly probing the weaknesses of his rivals -- both Republicans and Democrats -- in a constant cycle of confrontation. But he is also becoming a more conventional candidate as he staffs up a vice presidential search and moves from a self-funding financing model for his campaign toward traditional fundraising.
    Many Republicans in Washington are still coming to grips with the reality that Trump, who picked up fresh wins Tuesday in Nebraska and West Virginia, will be their standard-bearer in the fall. But as the shock of his sudden dominance of the party wears off, Trump seems to be showing the type of nominee he'll be: someone who maintains the often-outrageous persona that resonated with primary voters while also recognizing the requirements and tests of a general election are different.
    "He is only going to be Donald Trump," said Bill Miller, a veteran Texas Republican political consultant. But "can he conditionally change for circumstance? The answer to that is absolutely yes."

    Confounding expectations

    Trump has spent much of the past week confounding expectations that with the GOP nomination locked up, he will suddenly become more presidential. At times he has behaved much like the unconventional candidate he has always been.
    He's blasted Hillary Clinton as an "enabler" of her husband Bill Clinton's affairs, swapped insults with Democratic heroine Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Twitter and said he was "blindsided" when House Speaker Paul Ryan balked on an early endorsement. He said in an Associated Press interview Tuesday he wouldn't be releasing his tax returns -- in line with the practice of past presidential nominees -- because they are being audited and "there's nothing to learn from them." He also signaled a departure from general election orthodoxy in the interview by saying that he would not build a sophisticated data operation to target voters similar to those that helped pave President Barack Obama's path to election victories in 2008 and 2012.
    With party unity in tatters, Trump will meet with Ryan Thursday in Washington amid intense pressure for Republicans to avoid a schism that could ease Clinton's path to the White House. The meeting will reflect the reality that Trump is not alone in undergoing a period of transition -- the party he is about to lead is facing a reckoning as well.
    Phillip Stutts, a Republican political consultant, said he doesn't think Trump will change his persona but "the lights get even brighter going into the general election. There are 100 million people that will be voting in the general election that did not vote in the primary."
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    Indeed, there are some warning signs that Trump may not yet be up to the scrutiny of a general election. He's stumbled through a series of policy discussions in recent days by offering conflicting stands on issues like honoring government debt, raising the minimum wage and tax cuts for the rich.
    Trump told The Wall Street Journal in an interview Monday that it was "always possible to change. I always believe in flexibility and remaining flexible."
    He was talking specifically about his tax plan, but his comments appeared to reflect his approach to policy as a whole since becoming the presumptive nominee last week.
    As he embarks on his quest against Clinton, Trump is also deploying another tactic familiar from his primary run -- the visceral personal attack that belittles or highlights an aspect of his opponent's character or political history that he expands into a fatal flaw.
    That approach to branding helped him dispatch "low energy" Jeb Bush, "little" Marco Rubio and other enemies on the Republican debate stage.
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    Over the last week, Trump has targeted Clinton, trying to eviscerate her with personal attacks that bring up 1990s sex scandals surrounding former president Bill Clinton and tweeting video of the Benghazi attacks to make a case that the likely Democratic nominee has "bad judgment."
    But the tactics have the potential to backfire -- given Trump's already troubled standing among women voters -- 73% of whom said in a CNN/ORC poll in March that they had a negative opinion of him.
    In the same way, Trump's failure so far to change his positions on building a wall on the southern border and making Mexico pay for it along with plans to deport millions of undocumented immigrants will do little endear him to Latino voters, which complicates the already tough road he has through the electoral map toward the White House.
    Trump has so far shrugged off such obvious challenges to his candidacy by arguing he has done well with Latinos and women in the GOP primary -- without acknowledging the work he faces in the next phase of the campaign.
    "Donald Trump often speaks about the general as if it will be the same as the primary," said Mary Katharine Ham, a conservative author and CNN commentator on Monday.

    'Not the same electorate'

    "It is not the same electorate -- it does not respond to the same things," she said on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360." "Donald Trump has changed a lot of rules -- but I don't think he can make the primary and the general the same."
    Still, Trump has also adopted a more conventional posture as a candidate, putting in place building blocks for an administration by naming Christie to his new role and announcing on Tuesday that campaign manager Corey Lewandowski would oversee the search for a vice presidential running mate.
    And at the risk of alienating supporters who embraced his vows to self-fund his primary campaign, Trump has started the process of courting big GOP donors. This is simply a recognition by the billionaire that he needs hundreds of millions of dollars to meet the challenge from Clinton -- a sum that is beyond even his deep pockets.
    Some Republicans appear to have accepted what would once have been unthinkable -- that the former reality star will lead them into the general election.
    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has endorsed of Trump as the GOP nominee -- though it was hardly ringing. And some GOP lawmakers facing re-election who are loath to alienate Trump supporters have also offered tepid endorsements: Arizona Sen. John McCain, for instance, told CNN the GOP would be foolish to ignore the will of Trump's primary voters.
    But Trump's comments on a series of economic issues this week left other Republicans horrified. When he suggested that he would be able to renegotiate U.S. debt, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office, warned on CNN's "The Lead" that he could create economic contagion or "Puerto Rico on global steroids."
    Such controversies are one reason why Trump has struggled to coalesce the party into uniting around him.
    So far, former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and former GOP nominees McCain and Mitt Romney have said they will not show up to the Cleveland convention to watch Trump being enshrined as nominee.
    Others including former candidates Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham have said they will not vote for Trump. And some, such as Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, are following Ryan's line -- that they cannot take the plunge just yet.
    "This is not a man who has thought through the issues," Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who recently met with Romney and is involved in a search for a third party candidate, told CNN's "At This Hour" Monday. "For me, it comes down fundamentally to character and judgment, I just don't think (Trump) has shown the character to be president."
    It's that kind of verdict shared fairly widely across the conservative spectrum that has left Trump struggling to consolidate his position in his first week as presumptive Republican nominee. If Trump hadn't rewritten almost every rule in the primary — many more Republicans might be writing him off for the general election.
    But there is also a sense that something about Trump might just be different.
    "I studied history and history was completely wrong in forecasting anything in this election," said Stutts. "Maybe the cult of Trump can bring people together. But this looks to be an increasingly fractured party right now."