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Donald Trump and his supporters wonder how much being 'presidential' matters

Donald Trump and his supporters wonder how much being 'presidential' matters
Republican front-runnerDonald Trump addresses the crowd during a rally Thursday inIndianapolis. (John Sommers II / Getty Images)

A few minutes into a boisterous rally in which Donald Trump criticized one rival as a slob, yelled at a protester to “go home to Mom!” and implored his supporters to “wave to the dishonest media,” the candidate paused for a moment to reflect.

“They want me to be presidential,” Trump told the crowd of several thousand in a Philadelphia suburb. “I think I look presidential. Do I look presidential?”

He quickly reconsidered.

“I knocked off 16” candidates, he said. “A governor, a senator, another governor, another senator. And then they say, ‘Oh, you should be more presidential.’ Listen, I’ve got to be careful not to be too presidential, folks.”

As he homes in on the Republican nomination, Trump appeared this week to be wrestling with whether to tone down his brash style and adopt some more traditional trappings of a presidential candidate, aware that such a shift could alienate supporters who are dazzled by  his anti-establishment approach. Backers of his who turned out at rallies in two states were divided, split over their desires to see him shake up politics and embrace the realities of building a winning general-election coalition.

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"I want him to be presidential when he needs to be and outspoken when he needs to be," said Susan Kelleher, 73, who attended a rally this week in Hagerstown, Md.

As Trump put it Tuesday while he celebrated commanding victories in five East Coast states: "Why would I change? If you have a football team and you're winning and you get to the Super Bowl, why would you change your quarterback?"

One answer is that although Trump's over-the-top, say-whatever-he-wants approach has endeared him to Republican primary voters, it may turn off the much broader swath of voters who turn out for a the general election. More than 65% of Americans have a negative opinion of him, according to an average of recent polls by Real Clear Politics, making him the least popular politician since surveyors began asking.

"The Trump we've seen on the campaign trail to date has a very loyal following, but with a very hard ceiling," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "The problem with Trump is that his current base of support isn't big enough to get him elected president. If he wants to broaden that base, he is going to have to try a different approach, but right now it's not clear if he wants to try something different, or if he can actually do it."

As part of an effort by his campaign to have him appear in more formal and presidential settings, Trump delivered a foreign policy speech at a Washington think tank on Wednesday. But Trump, who has a gift for speaking extemporaneously, struggled with the teleprompter, mispronouncing several words. Compared with his typical campaign performances, he looked decidedly "low energy," an insult he frequently flung at former rival Jeb Bush.

Long known more for his reality television show than his politics, Trump seems more at home — and most compelling — holding court at large rallies, where his crowds have come to expect unpredictability, unruliness and theatrics.

At a packed airplane hangar in Hagerstown, Trump made his entrance by helicopter as the theme from the film "Air Force One" boomed. Speaking without notes, he zigzagged between topics, decrying the "phony business" of politics in one breath and provoking vociferous chants of "build that wall" in another.

Trump encouraged the crowd to express its disdain for a scrum of journalists in the room to capture the event. "You're all liars!" one man shouted at the reporters. Another interrupted Trump at one point by screaming: "Obama is a terrorist!"

It was a thrilling scene for Josh Valentine, 20, and Steve Eichelberger, 27, Maryland friends who met while working at McDonald's. Eichelberger said he and several family members recently registered to vote for the first time to cast ballots for Trump, drawn by his pledge to bring jobs back from overseas and his "politically incorrect" style.

"We've had predicable for the last 200 years," said Valentine. "[Trump] is doing his own thing. He speaks what's on his mind."

But some Trump supporters acknowledge that if he toned down his demeanor, it might help him win draw in new constituencies.

"I have mixed feelings about it," said Dana Stevenson, 54, who attended a rally in West Chester, Pa., with her fiance, Don Mimm. "I like that he speaks his mind. But sometimes I don't know why he says the things he says."

"A lot of my friends don't like him because of the way he comes across," said Stevenson, who works in technology. "My dad won't support him because of the way he talks."

Added Mimm, a business owner: "I don't like defending him. It would be nice if, instead of defending him, we could talk about his policies."

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That appears to be the goal of Trump's newest top advisor, longtime GOP operative Paul Manafort, who recently assured wary members of the Republican National Committee that the campaign would be altering its presentation to appeal to more voters. In another sign that Trump is looking to make his maverick run a little more traditional, he recently opened a campaign office in the suburbs of Washington.

But embracing the establishment is a risky move for a candidate who has sold himself as an outsider.

"If he becomes more like the establishment candidates, what does that mean?" said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategic. "You could lose the one thing you've been selling, which is authenticity."

Kelleher said she hopes Trump remains an outsider. "Washington isn't voting for him; we're voting for him," said Kelleher, who described herself as a tea party activist.

But she and other fans said it's OK if he starts calibrating his comportment.

Craig Lee, 52, an insurance agent in Front Royal, Va., said he thinks Trump's brash style on the campaign trail is all "part of an act."

And Lee is OK with that. "He's doing what he needs to do, and if he's elected he will tone it down," said Lee, who read Trump's book "Art of the Deal" in the 1980s and has been a fan ever since.

He admires that Trump is savvy enough to keep people interested: "He's a master at staying in the media."

Twitter: @katelinthicum

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