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Trump loses momentum just weeks after big GOP 'endorsements'

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pumps his fist after speaking at a rally at the Fox Theater, Wednesday, June 15, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

A couple of weeks ago, Donald Trump was riding a wave of Republican unity to the top of several national polls while Hillary Clinton struggled against an insurrection within her own party that threatened to distract her campaign into the summer.

Much has changed.

After a tumultuous week of picking fights with the media, a federal judge, and any Republican who criticized him, Trump had started an effort to reset the race by laying out his case against Clinton.

The terrorist attack in Orlando on Sunday has presented new challenges, though, and Trump's response to it-- thanking supporters for congratulating him for expecting a terrorist attack to occur, questioning the president's loyalty, and ramping up his anti-Muslim rhetoric-- has reopened divisions within the GOP.

Republican lawmakers' responses to questions about Trump's fiery words this week have mostly varied from lukewarm support to outright condemnation to simply fleeing reporters asking questions about him.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who held off on endorsing Trump until early June, said of his Muslim immigration ban proposal that it "is not what this party stands for. And more importantly, it's not what this country stands for."

"I'm not going to be commenting on the presidential candidate today," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said at a press briefing Monday.

"I don't know anything about that," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) told CNN of Trump's suggestions about Obama.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) told reporters that Trump's speech Monday was not "the type of speech that one would give that wants to lead this country through difficult times."

At a rally Wednesday, Trump warned Republicans to "either stick together or let me just do it by myself."

Republican strategists say members of their party expressing differences with their nominee is not unusual, and it happened with Mitt Romney in 2012 too, but the way they are doing it with Trump is different and more problematic.

"Republicans have a kneejerk reaction to criticize the nominee early and often," said GOP strategist Ford O'Connell said.

He contrasted McConnell's dismissals of Trump's controversial comments with Ryan outright declaring his attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel "racist."

"There's a much more subtle way to do that so you're not just kneecapping the nominee."

Politicians may think they are helping secure their own seat in their local races, O'Connell said, but a weak candidate at the top of the ballot will hurt them in the long run. By criticizing Trump, they feed the media cycle and keep the spotlight on his problems.

Republican strategist David Payne agreed that intraparty criticisms of Romney were traditional and "collegial" differences about his policies and his record. With Trump, it is a fundamental concern about his principles and character.

"It's more of, can we trust him to actually be a Republican once elected."

Despite the vocal critics, Payne emphasized that there are many Republicans who are supportive and even excited about Trump. The Republican National Convention in July may be the nominee's best chance to make his case to the rest of the party faithful.

However, Daniel Franklin, professor of political science at Georgia State University, said Trump presents a unique and growing danger for Republicans.

"The difference is not between the parties but their candidates," Franklin said.

Trump may have won more primary votes than any Republican in history, but his views do not reflect the beliefs of a large portion of his party. Clinton, while far from an ideal candidate for liberals, is easier for Democrats to fall in line with.

Trump's actions since Orlando raise more doubts about his ability to broaden his appeal to independents or reluctant Republicans.

"I really think the last few days have been illustrative of his inability to really mainstream himself," Franklin said.

"He's making it very difficult for a lot of Republicans to support him."

A Bloomberg poll released Tuesday showing Clinton up by 12 points set off alarm bells for some conservatives. The poll, partly conducted after the Orlando attack, also found 63 percent of women said they could never vote for Trump.

Franklin cautioned that the Bloomberg poll surveyed likely voters and upcoming polls of all registered voters will provide a clearer look at the state of the race. He believes Trump's recent behavior has done lasting damage to his campaign, though, and Clinton's campaign will not let voters forget it.

"Once you say something stupid or abhorrent, then that piece gets played again and again and again," Franklin said.

Democrats, unsurprisingly, see the GOP's hope for winning back the White House crashing and burning.

"If [top Trump aide] Paul Manafort had been telling the truth instead of spinning when he said that Trump's demagoguery during the primaries was only an act," said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga, "Trump by now would have moderated his language and stopped acting like a frat boy on meth."

Instead, he sees Trump doubling down on positions and comments that insult large sectors of the electorate and challenge American traditions.

"In another world, Trump's convulsive behavior might have made him the biggest star ever of right-wing paranoid-talk radio, but it's already failed to unite Republicans and it all but guarantees that he will lose in November," Varoga said.

With nearly five months until the general election, there is plenty of time for Republicans to unify around Trump, but it could come too late.

"The word 'eventually' is something no campaign operative wants to hear," said Democratic strategist Holly Shulman.

Trump has to fight on two fronts now, securing the Republican base while trying to fight a Democratic nominee focused solely on defeating him.

Within 48 hours after clinching the Democratic nomination, Clinton had the endorsement of the president, the vice president, and one of the party's most outspoken and well-regarded liberal senators on board.

Clinton's primary opponent Bernie Sanders has not officially suspended his campaign yet. He has repeatedly vowed to do everything to stop Trump, though, and he is scheduled to make a major online address on Thursday night.

Rep. John Delaney (D-MD) told Sinclair Wednesday that he expects Sanders will join Democrats and President Obama in backing Clinton while continuing to advocate for the issues that are important to him.

"If Sen. Sanders cares about the issues he's focused on... I think he will clearly be supportive of Secretary Clinton and will be out there campaigning for her," Delaney said.

Clinton still has work to do to win over his most passionate supporters, but Shulman said that task looks easier now than it did a couple of weeks ago. It may not happen immediately, but their policy differences are relatively small and the comparison to Trump is so stark.

"There's so much at stake in this election," she said, "so I think you're going to see people get behind Hillary Clinton very quickly because they know what will happen if they don't and Donald Trump is elected president."

Varoga agreed.

"The Democrats will be united - no ifs, ands, or CYA caveats," he said. "Sanders' voters will not support Trump and, if targeted with a persuasive turnout message, will get out and vote against Trump."

Although Republicans acknowledge that a unified Democratic Party is an asset for Clinton, they also believe there are divisions beneath the surface that Democrats are better at hiding.

"You just don't hear them airing their differences so publicly," O'Connell said.

"It's an unenthusiastic coalescing," Payne said. Democrats may be more willing to accept Clinton as their nominee, but polls show dissatisfaction remains widespread in both parties.

Trump's unconventional campaign style may be hindering his efforts to capitalize on voters' unease with Clinton. At a rally Wednesday, he boasted about his small staff and low costs, but many media reports have questioned whether he really has a "campaign" in a traditional sense at all.

"For somebody who claims to be a great organizational expert, he doesn't have much of an organization," Franklin said.

The New York Times noted that Trump's falling numbers with female voters coincide with an onslaught of super PAC ads replaying his negative comments about women that have gone largely unanswered by his campaign for several weeks.

Strategists are conflicted on how much Trump needs to change to compete with Clinton, even as her campaign prepares a big swing state ad buy.

"In a lot of ways, Trump winged it through the primary and he was very successful," O'Connell said. "But he has to understand the general election is a different animal."

He believes the nominee can continue to be as outrageous and colorful as he wants to be, but Trump needs to stay focused on what is wrong with Clinton and what he will do right for the country.

Trump proudly flouted many of the conventions of presidential campaigning in the primaries, but the general election against the large and expensive Clinton campaign apparatus he mocks could require a change of tactics.

Trump's campaign has largely relied on one communications staffer, televised rallies, and his own Twitter feed to get its message out. Clinton has many press aides, an experienced rapid response team, and well-funded super PACs spreading hers on the national and state level.

"The Democrats have a very solid operation for rapid response and also an operation across the country that will continue to build up over the next few weeks," Shulman said. "Donald Trump's side has no evidence of any of those things."

She emphasized the importance of local surrogates, political leaders who voters know and trust, in communicating a candidate's message.

One benefit of winning over the party leadership for Trump, Payne suggested, would be getting more of those surrogates and allies out in the media defending him. Trump's strategy so far has not required the support of the GOP establishment, but he may need them in an accelerating general election campaign.

"Influencing every minute of news coverage, every line of news coverage in a positive way becomes very important," he said.

Getting more positive voices out there would have an immediate, tangible effect, but it would also require a change in philosophy.

"There's a bit of a cult of personality at the top of the campaign," Payne said.

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