If Hillary Clinton is elected president in November, Republicans may look back on the week just passed as a turning point in the race.
Republican Party leaders are increasingly concerned about recent national and state polls that show the Democratic nominee surging into a lead over Republican Donald Trump.
Polls in battleground states such as New Hampshire, Michigan and Pennsylvania show Clinton leading by substantial margins. These came on the heels of national polls by CNN and NBC that showed Trump trailing by at least 8 percentage points.
The surveys came in the wake of last week’s Democratic National Convention, which appeared to give Clinton a 5- to 7-percentage-point boost, a normal occurrence after a party convention. But they also seemed to reflect the fallout from a series of controversies involving Trump that have sparked negative reactions from not only Democrats but also some prominent Republicans.
Trump remained defiant on the campaign trail despite the fretting by Republican leaders. He told a rally in Jacksonville, Florida, on Wednesday that his campaign was in fine shape and remained on track to win in November.
“So I just want to tell you the campaign is doing really well. It has never been so well united,” Trump said to cheers.
Trump and the Khans
Trump’s difficult week began with his feud with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Muslim American parents of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in the Iraq War in 2004.
Khizr Khan denounced Trump at last week’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia, and Trump’s combative reaction to the Khans drew a negative response from key Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Arizona Senator John McCain.
“We not only have to respect but love the family members who have made these sacrifices,” McCain said.
Trump also sparked a backlash among party leaders for refusing to endorse both Ryan and McCain in upcoming primary elections.
The controversies swirling around Trump have some Republican leaders worried that his undisciplined approach to the campaign is helping Clinton and could hurt Republican hopes to hold their majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives.
“He is going to have to start convincing people that he is qualified for the presidency and has the temperament for the presidency,” said University of Virginia political analyst Kyle Kondik. “And I don’t think that back-and-forths like this one with the Khan family are particularly helpful in that regard.”
Kondik’s boss, Larry Sabato, issued an update Thursday on the Electoral College projection from the university's Center for Politics. It showed Clinton with a likely 347 electoral votes and Trump with 191. The projection showed Clinton increasing her chances of carrying several key states, including Colorado and Virginia, which is the home state of her vice presidential running mate, Senator Tim Kaine.
Mindful of the growing party concern about his campaign, Trump told local television station WPEC in West Palm Beach, Florida, that he realized he needed to change the focus of his campaign.
“Well, I think that is probably right. More focus on Hillary Clinton. She’s a disaster, so we’re going to focus more on Hillary Clinton,” Trump said.
Clinton campaigned this week in Colorado, another swing state where Trump is trailing in recent polls. Clinton continued to hammer away at the notion that Trump’s temperament should disqualify him from becoming president.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Donald Trump is unqualified to be president and unfit to be commander in chief,” Clinton said Wednesday to roars from a crowd in Denver.
The pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA also launched an ad this week featuring a number of Republicans criticizing Trump. Among them is Michael Hayden, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, who is seen in a video clip describing Trump as “a clear and present danger.”
Clinton and Trump are well aware of polls that show Americans want change this election. But veteran political analyst Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal also sees a growing concern about the temperament of the candidates.
“I think there is a big desire for change, and that helps Donald Trump. He is the different candidate and therefore he is the change candidate,” Seib told VOA. “But I also think there is a parallel concern, which is a fear of the unknown. So where does this balance out? The desire for change versus fear of the unknown, because Donald Trump is very much an unknown commodity as a political leader.”
Trump has maintained an aggressive campaign schedule, including recent rallies in Florida and Virginia. But Republican leaders are hoping Trump will avoid distractions in the weeks ahead and focus on his message of bringing political change.
Among them is Republican strategist Scot Faulkner. “The key is that somebody has got to say that I will be better with Trump in the White House because he is going to do X, Y and Z. And he hasn’t quite put that value proposition out there,” Faulkner said.
Some Republicans fear the party’s congressional prospects could also suffer in November if Trump fails to refocus his campaign by early September, a time when Americans usually begin to seriously focus on the election choices before them.