WASHINGTON - The next major test in the U.S. presidential campaign comes Tuesday when five eastern states hold primaries — Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. The two presidential front-runners — Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton — appear well-positioned to pick up more delegates then, solidifying their status as the top contenders.
Trump and Clinton are coming off wins in their home state primary, New York, which could prove significant down the line. Trump has increased the chances that he will accumulate the necessary 1,237 delegates needed to claim the Republican nomination outright before the national nominating convention in Cleveland in July.
In the case of Clinton, her defeat of rival Bernie Sanders in New York makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Sanders to overtake her in the pledged delegate count between now and the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in late July. So far, Sanders is not giving any signs that he is about to end his presidential quest.
In the wake of New York, Trump campaign officials were busy at a meeting of the Republican National Committee in Hollywood, Florida, trying to convince the party elite that Trump will be a viable general election candidate despite the various groups he has antagonized during the primary campaign.
Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort, a veteran Republican operative brought in to bolster the billionaire’s campaign, told those at a private meeting that Trump realizes he will need to change his image if he becomes his party's nominee.
Manafort was secretly taped by someone in the audience and the tape was later made its way to news outlets including The New York Times. Manafort told the Republican activists that “fixing personality negatives is a lot easier than fixing character negatives,” adding that “you can change the way somebody presents themselves.”
There are questions about the apparent Trump make-over from primary contender to nominee-in-waiting. Will Trump be able to undo the damage he’s wrought with women voters and minorities, many of whom took offense to various comments he made in the heat of the primary battles? And even as Trump moves to re-fashion his national image for the general election, will conservative Republicans begin to doubt his authenticity if he moves away from conservative positions he voiced during the primary campaign?
Trump still has a way to go before he rests easy in the nomination fight. Polls show him well-positioned for the five states holding primaries on Tuesday; but, the Indiana primary looms May 3, perhaps rival Ted Cruz’s last chance to derail Trump enough to force a contested convention in Cleveland.
Trump continues to exude confidence on the campaign trail including at a rally in Indiana where he urged cheering supporters to imagine that he had already been elected president.
“When I cast that vote for Donald Trump to be president of the United States and when he won, shortly thereafter our country became great again,” he told the crowd. “We started to win again and, believe me, we are going to win, win, win. Remember, make America great again!”
GOP delegate battle continues
Neither Cruz nor Ohio Governor John Kasich is giving up, though. Cruz says if Trump fails to win the nomination on the first ballot in Cleveland, he is better positioned to pick up delegates who will switch away from Trump on subsequent ballots and make him the nominee.
“We are going to arrive in Cleveland with me having a ton of delegates and Donald having a ton of delegates,” Cruz told reporters at a news conference in Florida this week. “And at that point ,it is going to be a battle to see who can earn the support of a majority of the delegates elected by the people.”
Most analysts believe Trump remains the favorite for the nomination.; but, they also warn that he must continue to win delegates to avoid a battle at the convention with an uncertain outcome. “There are some states coming up that are favorable to him, but he’s still not guaranteed the nomination,” said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “No one else can get it outright. Ted Cruz cannot get the mathematical number. John Kasich cannot, but Donald Trump might be the clear nominee or he might fall short and we’ll have to decide that at a convention.”
Clinton's growing advantage
The situation on the Democratic side may have a little more clarity in terms of the nomination math. Hillary Clinton’s victory in New York made rival Bernie Sanders' path to overtaking her a long shot at best, and Clinton is trying to focus on both party and national unity in her campaign appearances.
“In a democracy, we don’t think anybody has all the truth. You know, we’re not a dictatorship. We’re not an authoritarian regime. We’re not a theocracy; we’re a democracy and we got to talk and listen again,” Clinton told supporters at a rally in Philadelphia ahead of Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary.
Despite the drubbing in New York, Sanders has vowed to fight on even as some Democrats urge him to temper his attacks on Clinton and work toward party unity.
Sanders remains focused on expanding his political movement, driven by progressive Democrats, independents and young people. “No president can solve or address effectively the real problems facing the middle class and working families in this country, the elderly, the children and the poor, unless we have a political revolution,” Sanders told a rally at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania.
Hopes for party unity
With Sanders' hopes for the nomination dimming, many Democrats want both contenders to focus on bringing the party together and prepare to take on the Republicans in the general election campaign.
Healing the party after a divisive primary is possible but will take time, according to John Fortier.
“I think the Bernie Sanders supporters will come home to Hillary Clinton," he said. "It may take a month after the convention when they say, what's the alternative — Hillary Clinton or a Republican that is much further from our views?”
Polls show Clinton in a strong position for Tuesday’s five primary contests. More Clinton victories will likely increase the pressure on Sanders to consider how to gracefully bow out of the Democratic race after the primary season and help unify the party behind Clinton as the expected nominee.