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Trump has an early lead on Biden. But problems are piling up around him.

Pro-Trump PAC Funneling Millions to Cover Trump's Legal Expenses Amid Mounting Challenges

Donald Trump is walking back recent comments about cutting Social Security. He’s searching for an elusive abortion message that will offend neither anti-abortion voters nor suburban moderates. He’s inviting negative news cycles with claims that Jewish Democrats “hate” their religion and warnings of a coming auto industry “bloodbath.” And to top it off, he’s low on campaign cash — and doesn’t have the personal fortune to post a bond in the civil fraud judgment against him in New York.

The former president may be up in the polls, seemingly in the driver’s seat against a deeply unpopular incumbent. But problems, including many of his own making, are piling up around him. And his first two weeks as his party’s presumptive nominee have revealed old tendencies and new vulnerabilities that — taken in totality — amount to a rocky start to his general election campaign against Joe Biden.

Even inside the campaign, advisers are acknowledging the uneven transition to the general election. On a call with staff on Friday, a senior Trump campaign adviser lamented some of the recent news coverage, saying it had been a bad press week for the campaign, according to two people with knowledge of the call and granted anonymity to describe a private conversation. The adviser was particularly concerned about an onslaught of news stories highlighting the Trump campaign’s abrupt decision to close Republican National Committee minority outreach centers and an early voting initiative as part of the campaign and national party’s recent merger.

By the time of the call with staff — and after the Trump campaign faced criticism over the strategy — the RNC’s newly elected chair had announced to members that the programs would not end, after all. But the damage was done.

Collectively, the missteps and unresolved policy problems have served as a reminder to some Republicans that the election is no guarantee, and that one of the main hurdles may simply be maintaining some discipline at the top of the ticket.

“The only person who can beat Donald Trump is Donald Trump,” said David Urban, a former senior Trump campaign adviser. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Despite it all, Trump remains in an enviable position, leading Biden in early polls as the incumbent president clocks in with historically bad approval ratings. But Trump’s advantage is also less than 2 percentage points — hardly a commanding lead — and he is still sitting below 50 percent. In the earliest days of the general election campaign, Trump’s often improvised remarks contrast with his opponent’s more carefully scripted campaign outings — and that approach brings some downsides, as evidenced in recent days.

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After making marginal gains with Latino voters, Trump on Saturday said some migrants were “not people.” His campaign scrambled over the weekend to push back on coverage of his remarks predicting a “bloodbath” if he loses in November, explaining that he was only talking about the auto industry. And then Trump ignited another controversy, saying Jews who vote for Democrats “hate everything about Israel” and their religion.

Trump’s smash-mouth politics also have upsides for him, resonating with his base.

“He is who he is — his narrative is doubling down on negativism,” said Chuck Coughlin, a political strategist in Arizona who left the Republican Party after Trump was elected.

Inside the campaign, however, the bigger scramble has been around two policy fronts where Republicans have been vulnerable. Trump moved quickly into clean-up mode after seemingly entertaining cuts to Social Security, the popular entitlement program. In an interview with Breitbart News published last week, Trump said he would “never do anything that will jeopardize or hurt Social Security or Medicare.” That came after Trump told CNBC “there is a lot you can do in terms of entitlements — in terms of cutting — and in terms of also the theft and the bad management of entitlements.”

And he is bracing for another round of controversy on abortion, a major point of electoral weakness for the GOP since the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022. On Sunday, Trump told Fox News he would make a decision on what policy to back “pretty soon,” saying he “would like to see if we could make both sides happy.” It was an all but impossible aspiration, but one that underscored Trump’s long-held belief that the issue remains toxic for the GOP.

In an interview with WABC radio’s Sid Rosenberg on Tuesday, Trump floated, as he has before, possible support for a 15-week limit on abortion, saying he is “thinking in terms of that.” However, he also said “all the legal scholars on both sides agree it’s a state issue,” not a federal one.

Trump has done nothing to mend fences with primary rivals like Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley. And his former vice president, Mike Pence, refuses to endorse him.

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“I think he feels very confident and pretty much can say and do whatever he wants to,” Wayne MacDonald, a New Hampshire lawmaker and former state Republican Party chair, said of Trump. “But I’d suggest that he be careful.”

At a minimum, Trump has given Democrats an opening to tear into him. On Monday, Biden’s campaign released a video on social media spotlighting Trump’s “bloodbath” remarks. That evening, after Trump made his comments about Jewish people, Biden’s campaign accused Trump of “attacking Jewish Americans at a time of rising antisemitism.”

Parrying attacks from Democrats is something any Republican would have to do. But Trump is about to face an avalanche of spending from Biden and his well-financed allies. Biden’s campaign said this week that it has a staggering $155 million on hand between the campaign, the Democratic National Committee and related joint fundraising committees, and as of the end of January, Biden and the DNC held a $41 million cash advantage over Trump.

Trump has far less cash on hand, due in part to his legal bills. The Republican National Committee is in similar financial straits. And on top of that, the former president is facing money problems outside of the campaign. He told an appellate court in New York on Monday that he can’t find a bond to cover the full amount of a civil fraud judgment of more than $450 million there.

Since winning the nomination, Trump has tended to pick interviews with more favorable outlets as opposed to mainstream ones. Besides an interview last week with CNBC in which he made his Social Security remarks, Trump over the last few days sat for interviews with Fox News, Breitbart, the New York Post, Newsmax, former Trump administration official Sebastian Gorka and Nigel Farage, the Brexit leader and MAGA media personality.

Trump has so far been reluctant to repair relations with some of his former primary rivals. While he has campaigned with former opponents Vivek Ramaswamy, Tim Scott and Doug Burgum, he has so far not personally reached out to two of his fiercer critics. Last week, a Trump adviser granted anonymity to speak freely confirmed the former president has made no outreach to Haley, the former United Nations ambassador. Nor has Trump personally reached out to DeSantis, the Florida governor, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter and granted anonymity to speak freely.

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On Friday, Pence, who in 2016 served to validate Trump with skeptical, conservative-leaning voters, said he won’t endorse his former boss, accusing him of “pursuing and articulating an agenda that is at odds with the conservative agenda that we governed on during our four years.”

A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

Henry Barbour, a RNC member from Mississippi who has been critical of Trump, said he would counsel the former president to “pick up the phone and call Nikki Haley and call Ron DeSantis and to explain you can’t do this alone.”

Still, Barbour said, “all Trump needs is a three iron down the middle against this guy, and we’re going to win the White House. I don’t think he’s going to have to crank out the driver.”

Few top Republicans seriously expect Trump to shift his rhetoric ahead of the general election. After he won the 2016 GOP primary, the former president largely resisted calls from party leaders for him to adjust his messaging to a broader electorate. He has been consistent in his hard-edged approach ever since, even though it cost him in the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential election. Some Republicans say he shouldn’t bother trying.

Scott Jennings, a Republican media strategist, said Trump should focus more on picking up working-class Democratic voters who are disaffected with Biden than trying to alter his personality and rhetoric to appeal to suburbanites who are already well aware of his baggage and past comments.

“If you’re a suburban, college-educated voter, if you are going to be offended by Trump, you’re already offended,” Jennings said. “If you haven’t hit the last straw yet in that cohort, you aren’t going to hit it.”

“The idea that he would have to go on some reconciliation tour with Haley voters or somehow change himself, it’s asinine for someone to argue that,” Jennings continued. “If you’re Trump, the best thing to do is to lean into who you are and what you stand for, with full knowledge that the current president is so far underwater that you’re going to find a lot of takers.”

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