Donald Trump's big test

Trump to deliver keynote speech at RNC
Trump to deliver keynote speech at RNC

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Story highlights

  • Stakes are high for Trump's keynote speech at RNC Thursday
  • Cruz's speech exposed the deep divisions that remain in the GOP

Cleveland (CNN)Donald Trump has never faced more pressure on the national stage than he will Thursday evening when he accepts the Republican nomination.

This week's Republican National Convention has been dominated by unexpected fireworks ranging from the plagiarized speech his wife delivered and the way the campaign prolonged the episode to Ted Cruz's shocking address Wednesday in which he refused to endorse Trump and encouraged Americans to vote their conscience. Cruz's speech exposed the deep divisions that remain in the party after the fractious primary.
    But beyond the Cleveland drama, Trump faces a more difficult long-term challenge: fashioning a message that can at once soothe concerns among scores of independent women while still firing up the white men who are angry about the direction of the country.
    The trouble: Trump hasn't really even begun that task yet.
    During a convention that so far has been dominated by red meat issues and heated attacks on Hillary Clinton, Trump has yet to show how he can appeal to the broader general election audience, particularly women, by proving that he would be a reliable commander-in-chief.
    That leaves Trump with a critical balancing act when he takes the stage Thursday: how much time and energy to spend slamming Clinton versus presenting a positive case for himself.

    'Envision you in the Oval Office'

    "We're at the cycle of the campaign when voters no longer are just trying to figure out who you are as a person -- they are trying to envision you in the Oval Office and they want to know there's someone there who shares their values," said David Gergen, who has advised four presidents and is a senior political analyst for CNN. "This is the moment when he has to be much less abrasive, much more inclusive and embracing of people who are not like him."
    "The goal at the end of the day," Gergen said, "is not just to convince women 'Oh, he's much better than I thought.' The goal is for them to say 'Even though I don't like aspects of him, I'm going to feel safer with him there' or 'I'm going to feel that I have a better chance to get a job.' ... He hasn't quite conveyed that yet. He has to build and broaden his base."
    In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, Trump's support among white men was more than double that of Clinton. He has also run particularly strong among white men who do not have college degrees. Trump had a 1-point lead among white women over Clinton, but must improve his standing -- particularly among married women who are 35 to 54 in order to win the election. For months now in the Washington Post/ABC poll, about two-thirds women have held an unfavorable view of Trump.
    "Trump's challenge is to keep his hard-core base that is alienated from many things happening in American society energized — without driving away the swing voters that he needs to get over the top," said Ron Brownstein, a CNN political analyst who is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships.
    "The biggest electoral obstacle that Trump faces is that he is significantly underperforming among college-educated whites, including both men and especially women," Brownstein added. "Those voters in polls express two big concerns about Trump, one that he's racially divisive and the other is whether he has the qualifications, judgment and temperament to be president.... He's got a lot of work to do."

    Broader universe of voters

    Despite the Trump campaign's imperative to appeal to a broader universe of voters — that has certainly not been a central focus of Trump's convention this week.
    Setting aside the fact that the week has been largely overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Melania Trump's speech -- and now Cruz's refusal to endorse his former rival -- the message has also seemed keyed largely to the Republican primary voter, rather than the swing voters who are open to Trump, but unsettled by his divisive rhetoric.
    The first night's focus was on Clinton's failings in the Benghazi attacks, a favorite topic of core conservative voters. The highlight of the second night was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's blistering indictment of Clinton over her private email server, and an odd tangent by Ben Carson, who accused Clinton of admiring a historical figure who had praised Lucifer.
    The third night featured the discordant notes of Cruz displaying the Republican party's utter lack of unity. Cruz was followed by vice presidential nominee Mike Pence making his case for core conservative values, at a time when Democrats are trying to use Pence's conservative advocacy on social issues as strike against the Trump ticket for women.
    But the Trump campaign believes that female voters are more closely aligned with Trump on national security issues and his approach to the economy than they are with Clinton -- and they see an opportunity to win them over with his speech and in the campaign this fall.
    In coming weeks, Trump's campaign plans to put him in more intimate settings talking to women about the economy, national security and education. They believe Trump's message on the diminishing safety within the homeland is resonating with women. Citing the terror attacks and recent attacks on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Trump has warned that things could get worse. On Thursday, he intends to focus on restoring law and order in an echo of Richard Nixon's rhetoric in 1968.
    David Axelrod, a CNN contributor and former adviser to President Barack Obama, said Trump must be cautious, however, in not overplaying his hand with the so-called "security moms" who could be key to his candidacy.
    "You push that too hard and can exacerbate another problem that you have which is that people think your temperament is wrong for the presidency -- that you are too edgy, or too impulsive for a job in which you have your finger on the nuclear button," Axelrod said. "The implication is that the world's problems are the nail and you're the hammer. And that may work with some people. But with others it may seem frightening."
    The most successful agents in the effort to reach women and a broader audience of voters have been Trump's children, who have attempted to humanize their father and show his softer side.
    There will be more of that on Thursday night when Ivanka Trump introduces her father before his speech accepting the nomination.
    "This is a reintroduction of Donald Trump to those undecided voters at home, so part of this is what he's done through his career, his family history," said Matt Pinnell, a rising star in the party who has served as the Republican Party's liaison between the state parties and the RNC. "I think he understands how big of a stage this is and how big of an opportunity this is for him to be reaching those undecided voters at home. He already knows he's got this crowd in here."