With new leadership, Trump campaign tackles ground game in earnest

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Story highlights

  • Trump's campaign is churning ahead with new vigor
  • There are still plenty of challenges facing the campaign

New York (CNN)Donald Trump's campaign was underwater and in disarray.

The candidate veered off message, jumping from one controversy to the next, his poll numbers plummeted, and the ground game his campaign had long vowed to jumpstart with an injection of cash and resources languished. Morale within the campaign was sinking and as Trump himself lost faith in his leadership, he decided it was time for a change.
    Three weeks after the campaign shakeup that put GOP pollster and strategist Kellyanne Conway and Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon in charge, Trump's campaign is churning ahead with new vigor, fueled by the candidate's newfound ability to mostly stick to the script and what a half-dozen campaign staffers in key battleground states described to CNN as Conway's commitment to improving the campaign's political operations.
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    Two new national polls out this week put the race at a dead heat, as well as in several battleground states, and campaign and RNC staffers say the campaign's ground game has markedly improved in the last three weeks.
    Conway and Bannon make up Trump's third campaign leadership team, taking the job following the dramatic departures of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. In an interview, she made clear that overhauling the campaign's ground game has been a top priority of hers, one she sees as crucial to clinching victory on November 8.
    "Mr. Trump is an unconventional candidate, but I have an appreciation for... conventional tactics," she said. "We've got to invest in the fundamentals."
    There are still plenty of challenges facing the campaign. His appearance at this week's "Commander in Chief" forum was marked by controversial statements on everything from Russia, the Iraq war to military sexual assault. And with just two months to Election Day, veteran political operatives question whether the Trump campaign can build out its infrastructure fast enough to recover lost ground as it faces off against a well-oiled Democratic machine that boasts hundreds more staffers and millions more dollars.
    To add to that, Trump appeared on a television station Thursday funded by the Kremlin, telling Larry King on RT America that he doesn't think Russian President Vladimir Putin is "probably" not meddling in US elections.
    In her three-week tenure, Conway, a self-proclaimed "huge fan of retail politics," has rushed to sign leases on new field offices and approve spending on everything from campaign RVs to yard signs.
    Last week she finalized the budget for two ground game projects, a door knocking program to increase voter contact in the battleground states and a direct mail effort to encourage absentee ballot voting. She also hired a national field director and deputy campaign manager, two experienced political hands, to build out campaign operations. The campaign also began airing its first TV ads in battleground states.
    And in the last two weeks, the campaign opened 30 new field offices in 21 states, more than half of which opened in the battleground states of Ohio, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, the campaign's chief operating officer Jeff DeWitt said in an email Conway shared with CNN.
    "Do I wish these things had been done before? Sure," Conway said. "But we're trying to accelerate it, and not abandon it."
    While Conway took pains to avoid directly criticizing her predecessor, operatives in several crucial swing states bluntly assessed the state of the campaign's field operations under the leadership of Paul Manafort, who helmed the campaign until his official resignation days after Conway and Bannon took the helm.
    "It was completely stalled," said one Trump staffer in a key battleground state.
    "This is why Paul and Rick (Gates, Manafort's deputy,) were so bad for this campaign, because they left it in shambles," said another. "It was infantile in some regards."
    Manafort did not respond to a request for comment.
    Top Trump campaign advisers promised the ground operations would rapidly expand as soon as the GOP convention wrapped up. But that rapid expansion never materialized until Conway took over, according to political operatives in swing states.
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    Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign continued to build out its operation and as of Aug. 29 it had more than double the number of field offices as Trump's campaign in Ohio and outnumbered Trump campaign offices in Florida and Pennsylvania 34 to 1 and 36 to 2, respectively.
    But beyond boosting the number of field offices and directing much-needed resources to state directors, Conway said she is working to make the campaign a more nimble operation after months during which staff complained of a hazy hierarchy, a lack of direction and slow decision-making.
    "One of the specific changes we tried to make is just being a more responsive, agile, creative campaign that recognizes that there is literally just a matter of days and weeks left," Conway said.
    Decisions have come faster and resources allocated more quickly, several Trump campaign staffers said.
    Conway is also reworking Trump's campaign schedule, which in recent weeks has included visits to blue states such as Washington and Connecticut -- which Trump has virtually no chance of winning -- to hold rallies that coincided with fundraising events nearby.
    "At this stage of the campaign, political has to drive the finance, not the other way around," Conway said, adding that the campaign is less likely to hold rallies in states that are "overly friendly" or "overly hostile."
    Conway and Bannon's arrival also heralded the beginning of a more on-message candidate, and the Republican nominee has read prepared remarks from a teleprompter at every single rally since the pair took over as campaign manager and campaign CEO.
    "This old call of 'Let Trump be Trump,' actually has merit," Conway explained. "But my goal was let Trump be more of the Trump that those of us who know him see in private."
    Conway downplayed her role in Trump's evolution -- "I don't think that's me. That's him..." -- but the consensus inside the Trump campaign is clear.
    "He listens to her," one Trump campaign staffer said. "She has his ear."
    "She's kept him on message," said another.
    The staffers spoke on background to avoid offending the candidate and senior leadership.
    Still, Trump has continued to call for a broad campaign aimed at capturing votes in all 50 states, proclaiming Wednesday night during a speech in New York that he is making a play for his deep blue home state.
    Conway and other members of Trump's top staff have had to gently push back against Trump's eagerness to compete in states where Republicans aren't competitive.
    "We're not running a 50-state strategy," one senior Trump campaign adviser said.
    Trump will still remain largely reliant on the Republican National Committee's infrastructure for much of its ground game, which means he will have the most resources in battleground states, regardless.
    Amid the numerous leadership changes at the top of the Trump campaign -- first former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski's firing, then Paul Manafort's exit -- RNC officials have struggled to merge seamlessly with the Trump campaign, and the staff shakeup has led to fits and starts in building out ground forces.
    Several RNC officials said the shakeups in Trump's top ranks were frustrating, but said they were optimistic to see the campaign more dedicated than ever before to ground game efforts.
    Sean Spicer, the RNC's communications director and chief strategist, insisted Wednesday on CNN's "New Day" that the Trump campaign and the RNC are working "hand in glove" and fielding "the most comprehensive ground game that any political operation has ever put out."
    And he didn't dismiss the importance of a solid field operation.
    "I think in a good close election -- which this is going to be -- a good ground game is worth 3 to 5 points," Spicer said.
    In states like Ohio, the Trump campaign's expansion and integration with local and national Republican party staff began later than expected and the groups are still ironing out kinks in their collaboration, Ohio GOP Chairman Matt Borges said.
    Still, a true ground game is on the way, Borges said.
    "You will certainly see what looks like a traditional ground game operation in Ohio (going forward)," the state's GOP chairman said. "The question is, did too much time pass before that was really put into place? I'd like to think no."