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Story highlights

Behind the scenes, the effort to build a potential Trump administration is growing

Longtime conservative policy experts in Washington have signed on

Washington CNN —  

Donald Trump has had a tumultuous relationship with Republicans in Washington – but all signs point to him having plenty of takers if he gets to staff an administration.

As the polls have tightened in the race, many Republicans who had all but written off Trump’s campaign have taken notice.

Ted Cruz, after not backing Trump at the GOP convention, endorsed the nominee last week. And while a number of prominent officials from both Bush administrations have spoken out against Trump, a coalition of Bush alumni announced their support for Trump this week.

Trump’s transition chairman, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, told lobbyists in Washington earlier this month that while it was slow going in late July and early August when Hillary Clinton had a commanding lead in the polls, as the gap closed there was a sharp increase in interest and returned phone calls.

Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, who formally endorsed Trump on Tuesday, said the interest in a potential Trump White House is already picking up.

“I think you’re beginning to see it now. Republicans, even some who were a little reluctant to be supportive at the beginning are coming around, recognizing the disaster they feel a Hillary Clinton administration would be,” said Sununu, who served as White House chief of staff for President George H.W. Bush. “I think as time goes on, things will get better and better and easier and easier for a Trump administration to be seen as something people would like to be a part of.”

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The transition team has been on a hiring spree. Sources close to the transition say the team has been hiring roughly 10 people a week, and longtime conservative policy experts in Washington have signed on.

The transition effort is also starting to buzz on K Street – ground zero for Washington’s lobby shops. Republican insiders say they’ve already noticed esteemed peers jumping on board or inquiring.

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In recent weeks, the transition has brought on Christine Ciccone, a former Jeb Bush campaign chief operating officer and lobbyist; Eric Ueland, a top Senate Budget Committee aide; David Bernhardt, a former Bush Interior Department official; Myron Ebell, a conservative thinker and climate change skeptic; Andrew Bremberg, a former adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the campaign of Scott Walker; and Mike Catanzaro, a longtime Washington policy aide and lobbyist, according to sources close to the transition and published reports.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the transition hiring effort.

The increased interest in the Trump transition effort signals an acceptance of his candidacy by a constituency that’s been one of the most reluctant to embrace him. Even after belatedly endorsing Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and McConnell have continued to criticize him.

“People start crawling back, it’s only human nature,” said one Republican close to the transition.

If Trump were elected, said Republican strategist and CNN commentator Kevin Madden, people would recognize “they have to do their best to see the best policies get put in. And that people with experience in a place to make a difference. Also I think what’s readily apparent is that Trump is not driven a lot by policy or by ideas, and that as a result he would outsource a lot of that expertise, and that is where congressional Republicans or Republican policy professionals would look to have an impact.”

The draw of a Trump administration is many fold, insiders say. For some, it’s pure ambition to work in the White House. Others see an opportunity to shape the agenda of a politician that has put forward very little substantive policy during his campaign.

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Still others are comforted by the addition of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as Trump’s running mate – a veteran of Congress and conservative darling who will likely have a heavy hand in policymaking.

“I think Mike brings a huge amount of stability to this ticket and gives a great degree of comfort to conservatives within the party,” Sununu said.

One long-time DC lobbyist, who is not a supporter of Trump, even said he couldn’t rule out joining a President Trump if a good offer came around after the election.

“There’s a lot of people that need jobs in this city,” the lobbyist said. “Staffing an administration won’t be hard, and people’s ambition to take a big job at a big agency or within the White House shouldn’t be underestimated. In fact, I think a lot of people would be able to justify it as, ‘Trump doesn’t seem to be a micro-manager and there might be an opportunity to do important things.’”