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Trump’s Task: Strengthen Campaign Before Cleveland

Donald Trump has less than three weeks until the Republican National Convention to unify the party, build out a general election team and prove to skeptics he's on the right path to winning the White House in the fall.

But it's not just the White House that's on the line for Trump — it's his nomination. Some of Trump's skeptics believe his struggles will help them make the case for a change to the party's rules to allow a coup at the convention.

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Mike Murphy, who ran Jeb Bush's super PAC and remains an avowed anti-Trump Republican, acknowledged that at the moment there's little appetite for that among Rules Committee members — but suggested that could change.

"If the Rules Committee gavels to order on the 14th and he's 8-10 weeks behind, he's broke, the campaign's in disarray and he's still feuding with the party, I would not underestimate pressure on [Rules Committee delegates]," he said.

Even some Rules Committee members who are opposed to a change of the rules say Trump's standing in two weeks could change their minds. Jonathan Barnett, a Rules Committee member from Arkansas, said poor polling for Trump could be a deal breaker.

"If Donald was down 15-20 points between now and the convention, everything will change. We'd start asking a lot more questions and a lot of things would be different," he said, adding, "that's not going to happen."

Trump does lag Democrat Hillary Clinton in public polling, but just by about 5 points in the Real Clear Politics polling average. Trump's allies see the single-digit margin evidence of Trump's strength, as they note he's able to keep close despite his many controversies. But at least two polls out in the past two weeks have given Clinton a double-digit edge on Trump.

Image: Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign stop at the Alumisource metals-recycling facility in Monessen, Pennsylvania, on June 28, 2016. Keith Srakocic / AP

And despite his recent operational overhaul and streamlined message, Trump still displayed an uncanny talent for self-inflicted damage — suggesting the candidate's greatest challenge may be himself.

Veteran Republican strategist Ron Bonjean pointed to Trump's Wednesday rally as evidence the candidate hasn't yet evolved to the presidential Trump he and his aides have promised. On the stump in Maine, Trump lashed out at the Chamber of Commerce as "pretty sinister" for criticizing his trade policy, and called his former opponents who have yet to endorse him "sore losers."

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"He has been a little bit more on-message lately. However, he needs to be laser-focused on going after Hillary Clinton time and again instead of being distracted by criticizing his former Republican opponents," he said.

Nearly every day this week Trump's attempts at pushing a more substantive message on his trade policy and jobs were overshadowed by his controversial statements.

On Tuesday, just hours after delivering an on-message policy speech aimed at putting Hillary Clinton on defense on trade, Trump drew negative press for proposing torturing terrorists and characterized the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as a "rape of our country."

And on Thursday, during a small town hall event again focused on trade, Trump veered-off message when he jokingly suggested a plane overhead was a Mexican plane, adding, "they're getting ready to attack!"

Austin Barbour, a GOP fundraiser who was a bundler for Mitt Romney, pointed to the Mexico comments as "just so stupid."

"A candidate can give a 15-minute speech but can spend 30 seconds on the wrong thing, shooting from the hip, and that's what's completely covered and that's his biggest problem," he said.

Barbour said that lack of discipline is part of why donors remain reluctant to give to his campaign, a reluctance that contributed to a shockingly low May haul that left Trump with just $1.3 million cash on hand.

"Everyone was tremendously concerned with the first report. You can't run a campaign for president that way," Barbour said.

Trump's fundraising woes remain a dark cloud hanging over the candidate's efforts to build out his general election team and strategy.

Practically, it means he hasn't yet gone up with general election ads in any key battleground states, and was outspent by Hillary Clinton's campaign $26 million to $0 in June, per an NBC News analysis. That's left Democratic attack ads unanswered, and risks allowing Democrats to define Trump before he can define himself.

"If he doesn't start advertising in these states now its like artillery just hitting the shore. It's no longer positive media for Donald Trump," Bonjean said.

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Indeed, the lack of advertising remains a significant concern for swing-state Republicans. Rob Gleason, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said he didn't mind that Trump wasn't building a field operation or sending surrogates there. He had just one piece of advice: "I told Mr. Trump he should start running TV here."

"It doesn't matter what [Clinton] says right now. I'd say 90 percent of voters have made up their mind on Mrs. Clinton. I think there's still voters out there that haven't decided on Donald Trump," he said.

Still, some Republican skeptics say Trump simply started so far behind in unifying the party and focusing on the general election that he needs to work even harder to catch up. As Barbour put it, Trump needs a "flawless july."

"He needs to pick the right person for VP, he needs to be continuing to make hires, he needs a strong campaign finance report sometime maybe late July, and a great convention," he said.

For Trump, the next two weeks could mean the difference between a great convention and a convention coup.