Story highlights

Donald Trump is reversing many positions he held before running for president

Campaign isn't offering many policy specifics

Washington CNN  — 

The frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination is a former pro-choice Democrat who once supported Canadian-style universal health care, tax hikes on the wealthy and said Hillary Clinton was “terrific.”

As he prepares for the first GOP debate of the election season next week, Donald Trump is disavowing many of his former positions and earning support from about one in every five Republicans through a combination of blustering rhetoric and dogged condemnation of the political class.

Now, the question is whether Trump’s lead will hold up against the gust of attacks – and charges of hypocrisy – he is likely to face from his GOP foes during Thursday’s debate. That threat hasn’t compelled him, however, to detail his policy platforms.

Trump continues to describe his policies in broad strokes: A wall on the southern border that Mexico will be forced to pay for, or a “terrific” alternative to Obamacare and “the finest” health care for veterans. And there’s Trump’s plan to deport all estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants and then allow “the good ones” to return and gain “legal status” through an “expedited process.”

When pressed for details on how he’ll find those individuals, Trump told CNN’s Dana Bash, “Politicians aren’t going to find them because they have no clue. We’ll find them.”

His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, had nothing to add.

‘On our time frame’

“Our immigration plan is very comprehensive. It’s available to us and when we’re ready to release that to the media, you’ll get a copy,” Lewandowski said. “We’ll do it on our time frame, not on the media’s time frame.”

Still, it appears Trump is still fleshing out his immigration platform. When asked this week whether he would also force undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to leave the country before gaining legal status, Trump pursed his lips and looked up in thought.

“They’re with their parents, it depends,” he said before pausing abruptly. “But look, it sounds cold and it sounds hard. We have a country and our country is going to hell.”

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Lewandowski insists that the campaign, entering its seventh week, is still in the early stages and while Trump’s policy proposals may be light on the specifics, Trump is the only candidate who’s brought them to the forefront.

“If it wasn’t for Donald Trump, none of these issues would have been addressed,” Lewandowski said, pointing to immigration and other issues the billionaire businessman has brought national attention to.

If those issues come up Thursday night during the first Republican primary debate, Trump will have to confront his flip-flops and lack of specifics all at once. Republican strategist Rick Wilson believes Trump is “tricking conservatives” with his brash talk, but said the debate could mark the start of voters realizing that Trump is not a true conservative.

“There’s really nothing there. There’s no there there. There is no Donald Trump policy,” Wilson said. “It’s going to show that this is not really a guy who has thought deeply about big issues.”

Face to face with his own words

Trump may come face to face with his own words, such as when he wrote in his 2000 book “The America We Deserve” that “we must have universal health care.”

Trump told CNN on Wednesday that “at the time we were having not the kind of difficulty that we’re having now with Obamacare.”

But now, he is vowing to “repeal (Obamacare) and replace with something terrific,” explaining that “the answer is going to be we have to knock down the borders and let people compete.”

He also said he wants “to try to help” lower-income people who get sick, describing a vague system that sounds similar to Medicaid. Lewandowski declined to explain Trump’s proposal or how it would be different from Medicaid.

Health care is one of a number of issues Trump has changed his views on over the years. While he used to endorse abortion rights, he told CNN he changed his position to anti-abortion after a friend decided not to go through with an abortion and “their child is like this magnificent person.” Trump still supports exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

He has also hardened his position on guns as he dives into the Republican primary.

After slamming Republicans in 2000 for walking “the NRA line” and refusing any restrictions, Trump now refers to the Second Amendment as “a bedrock natural right” and touted “the great work the NRA does” in an interview with AmmoLand this month.

And he now opposes expanding background checks and suggested reexamining existing laws because they “make it more difficult for law abiding citizens” to get a gun.

Donald Trump’s Achilles heel

Trump could also face questions about the one-time 14.25% tax increase on the wealthy he proposed in the 2000 book, arguing “it is only reasonable to shift the burden to those most able to pay.”

It’s that proposal and Trump’s inconsistent support for conservative economic policies that has earned Trump the ire of the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group that focuses on economic policy.

“I’d love to see them press him for specifics,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said of the moderators and other contenders who will face off against Trump next week. “It would quickly become apparent there aren’t specifics there.”

The group has been of Trump’s most vocal critics on the right. When he jumped in the race, the group dismissed his candidacy and said he should be excluded from the GOP debates. Trump fired back by releasing a letter Club for Growth had recently sent him requesting a $1 million donation for the group.

“He’s not a conservative and barely a Republican,” McIntosh said.

Robert Kiger, who runs a pro-Trump super PAC, said questions about Trump’s flip-flops are “legitimate” but said he’s confident Trump will “give a fantastic answer.”

“I don’t think anybody cares whether or not he changed his mind from 10 years ago, whatever the time frame might be,” Kiger said. “I think Americans – what’s resonating with the American people is that he’s really authentic and whether or not he changed his mind five years ago on a very specific issue is not going to matter to them one thin bit.”

Blunt talk

Trump has won over voters with blunt talk and promises that he won’t be like traditional politicians who say one thing to get elected then do another when they arrive in Washington. “In fact, his topsy-turvy back and forth on all these important issues tells me he’d be exactly that way,” McIntosh added.

Trump’s campaign manager, Lewandowski, insists that Trump isn’t the only one to have changed his tune on certain issues and pointed in particular to Clinton’s reversal on supporting the Iraq War and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s shift on Common Core.

But to confront his own reversals, Trump may need to delve into specifics to convince some that the is truly committed to his latest, conservative position.

“As president, you can’t govern by ad lib,” McIntosh said. “Tell us exactly what would you do on health care.”

Conservative commentators and activists have, for the most part, held back their harshest criticism of Trump’s evolving views on a number of policy issues. But that won’t be the case if the brazen billionaire still sits atop the polls when summer comes to an end.

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“If he’s still in this position four months from today, then I think it’s different,” said Craig Robinson, a conservative activist and blogger in Iowa. “At some point, your conservative media is going to say, OK, wait a minute, let’s take everything you say very seriously.”

For instance, on his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, “who’s picking up the tab?” Robinson asked. “It’s not enough to say ‘Well, I’ll make Mexico pay for it.’”

GOP voters are becoming enchanted with his rhetoric, but many of them aren’t familiar with his policy stances, said Erick Erickson, editor of the conservative

Voters “don’t know his positions on abortion or gay marriage or universal health care,” Erickson said. “They just know Donald Trump is giving the business to people who deserve it.”