Trump goes mainstream -- but will it last?

Story highlights

  • The 'new' Trump campaign is embracing more traditional tactics
  • But Trump's track record for embracing change is not very good

(CNN)It turns out Donald Trump is a politician, after all.

After spending nearly a year bulldozing the Republican primary field, the party's unlikely nominee has found the general election campaign a less hospitable ground. His blunt pitch has mostly flopped during a post-convention run that has seen his poll numbers plummet amid a series of controversies and damaging feuds.
    Confronted with electoral mortality, Trump has again -- but in the most dramatic terms to date -- done what anxious candidates have been doing for decades: He replaced his top staff.
    The decision to bring aboard Breitbart executive Steve Bannon as his chief executive was greeted with a mix of surprise and curiosity, a Trump specialty, and an expectation of scorched-earth tactics. At the same time, the elevation of seasoned GOP operative Kellyanne Conway from senior adviser and pollster to campaign manager signaled a more intriguing possible move toward normalcy.
    And the initial sidelining of campaign chairman Paul Manafort foreshadowed Friday's news: The man brought in to impose some discipline on the candidate and his campaign would no longer be a part of it.
    Conway's promise on Thursday morning to "sharpen the message" and "win the argument everyday," while hinting at debate prep details, were biting for their blandness. Mitt Romney, who has set himself up this year as a moral and political foil to Trump, might even recognize some of the catchphrases and tactics being floated in the past 48 hours. His campaign too was flailing into the fall, constantly resetting, promising "More Mitt" and pointing to the debates as the turning point to come.
    First, though, Trump had to deliver a shock to the narrative.
    He did it in Charlotte Thursday night, delivering a very public -- if equally vague -- acknowledgment of any "personal pain" caused by his past words. The goal? Give supporters and wavering allies a jolt and hope that this latest shakeup, reset and pivot would be different than the four or five that had fallen by the wayside, usually not more than a day or two after they began.
    It certainly caught the eye of Hillary Clinton's campaign, which moved quickly to stamp out any discussion of a "new Trump."
    "Donald Trump literally started his campaign by insulting people," Clinton spokeswoman Christina Reynolds said in a statement Thursday night. "He has continued to do so through each of the 428 days from then until now, without shame or regret. We learned tonight that his speechwriter and teleprompter knows he has much for which he should apologize."
    Clinton campaign spokesman Nick Merrill sounded the alarms, too, tweeting, "It's not inconceivable that he gets away with this. We all need to do our part to make sure he doesn't. Unreal."
    News Manafort had resigned Friday morning -- he didn't want to be a "distraction," said Trump's son, Eric -- failed to step on the emerging plot.
    Around the same time Friday, Trump and running mate Mike Pence arrived in Louisiana to survey the state's flood-damaged region, quietly touring a number of hard-hit neighborhoods. Later in the day, Trump asked African-American voters in Michigan to take a chance on him.
    "What the hell do you have to lose?" he asked them, departing from his prepared remarks.
    He's also rolling out a first round of television ads while sticking to those promises of more targeted messaging, supplemented by regularly scheduled policy addresses, in the weeks to come. Trump will remain Trump, the new campaign hierarchy says, but this time will be different.
    The track record for that kind of promise is not very good -- not for past candidates looking for a late game-changer and certainly not for Trump. From the introduction of a teleprompter in the spring to his decision to fire campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in favor of the more polished Manafort in June -- while promising to tamp down the rhetoric and offer a leaner cut of red meat to his supporters -- the Trump operation has never been able to overcome or match the candidate himself.
    But with the first debate general election debate with Clinton on the horizon, Trump's last best chance to reshape the race before the current dynamic hardens is here -- if it's not already too late.