Donald Trump’s peak in the polls might be behind him

Welcome to Trail Guide, your daily host through the wilds of the 2016 presidential campaign. It's Thursday, Sept. 24, and this is what we're watching:

Martin O'Malley pitches himself as the electable alternative to Clinton

 (Kate Linthicum / Los Angeles Times)

(Kate Linthicum / Los Angeles Times)

Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley introduced himself to a crowd of Southern California college students on Thursday by explaining what he is not.

"I am not a former independent," O'Malley, the former Maryland governor, told a crowd of several hundred at Pitzer College. "I am not a former socialist."

It was his first but not his last jab at Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, himself a former independent who embraces the label of Democratic socialist, and who, like O'Malley, is presenting himself as a more progressive alternative to Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"We have just come through a summer of anger and discontent," O'Malley said, a reference to the populist groundswell on both sides of the political spectrum that has propelled Sanders and Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

But, O'Malley warned the crowd, "Neither party ever nominates angry."

With that, O'Malley appeared to be trying to stake out a particular turf for himself: the alternative to the establishment, but an electable one.

O'Malley was the first presidential candidate to ever speak at Pitzer, according to administrators at the college, one of the five Claremont schools about 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The event reached capacity early, with some students watching a televised version of the speech from an overflow space.

O'Malley, who is polling at just 1%, according to a Bloomberg News poll released this week, came onstage playing air guitar to his campaign theme song, by punk band the Dropkick Murphys. He touted his record in Maryland, where as governor he passed legislation that raised the minimum wage, granted gays and lesbians the right to marry and ended the death penalty.

His proposals to move to a clean-energy electric grid and to allow immigrants in the country illegally to stay drew huge cheers.

"The enduring symbol of our nation is not the barbed-wire fence, it's the Statue of Liberty," he said, in a nod to Trump's plan to construct a giant wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

O'Malley spent about 30 minutes taking questions from students, who asked what he would do about the war in Syria, for the transgender community, and to lower college tuition costs.

Then a student asked bluntly: "Why should I vote for you instead of Sen. Sanders?"

"I have the executive experience to actually get things done," O'Malley responded. "It's a different discipline than being a legislator."

But O'Malley faces a challenge if he wants to draw votes away from Sanders, who has garnered support from young, ultra-left voters like the ones on this campus.

"Among those of us who want a more progressive candidate to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders is the candidate we need to be rallying behind," said Samuel Breslow, a sophomore at Pomona College who said he is registered to vote in New Hampshire and plans to vote for Sanders in the nation's first primary in February.

"Why is he still in the race?" Breslow asked after the event. "He doesn't really have a lot to offer that Bernie Sanders isn't offering."

O'Malley, who frequently faces questions on the campaign trail about his dismal poll numbers, appeared to answer that question in his speech when he talked about the challenges facing the nation -- a divided electorate, an obstructionist Congress.

"I like tough fights," he said. "I like long odds."

For Hillary Clinton, New Hampshire is a tough climb

 (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

A coronation-like run through the presidential primary season appears to be beyond Hillary Rodham Clinton's grasp -- thanks to New Hampshire.

For nearly a month, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, has led polls in the early nominating state.

An average of several recent surveys of voters in the Granite State showed Sanders leading Clinton 42% to 32%, according to Real Clear Politics. And a new CNN poll released Thursday had 46% of likely Democratic voters in the state supporting him, compared with 30% who say they back Clinton. The poll showed Vice President Joe Biden, who is mulling a presidential run, registering at 14%.

When looking at New Hampshire -- unless something dramatically begins to shift -- it's safe to note that she will probably lose an early state, said Floyd Ciruli, an independent, Colorado-based pollster who has done extensive national polling as well.

As for Sanders' rise in New Hampshire, Ciruli said that a mix of the state's educated -- and mostly white -- Democratic base has benefited him.

"He's not a part of that old-guard establishment like the Clintons," Ciruli said. "New England is his home, and his tell-it-how-it-is message is appealing to voters in the state."

Still, the shift is somewhat surprising for Clinton, who narrowly won New Hampshire in 2008 -- a victory that gave life to her campaign and sparked a long Democratic primary before she eventually ceded the nomination to then-Sen. Barack Obama.

However, her favorability in the state has never been all that strong among Democrats and continues to lag four months before New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.

At the start of the year, her favorability registered near 80% and is now at 67%, according to the CNN survey released Thursday. In the intervening months, the revelation that she used a private email server as secretary of State began to dog her candidacy.

"The email controversy is damaging," Ciruli said. "It creates this cloud."

By contrast, Sanders' favorability has risen from 69% in July to 78% now in New Hampshire.

Still, Clinton holds a 14-percentage-point advantage over Sanders among an average of national polls.

Bush: 'I've been really good today,' haven't talked about Trump

Jeb Bush traveled to South Carolina late Thursday, a day after attending a Mass led by Pope Francis in Washington.

Hillary Clinton talks marriage with actress Lena Dunham

Actress Lena Dunham landed a prized interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton for her new online newsletter.

Clinton, who in recent weeks has done a barrage of television interviews, was asked questions by the actress spanning topics from her work life to her personal life.

Dunham is a supporter of Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.

In one exchange, Dunham, who shot to fame on the HBO series "Girls," asked if the former first lady had anxiety about marrying Bill Clinton.

"I was terrified about losing my identity and getting lost in the kind of wake of Bill's force-of-nature personality," she said.

The full interview will air on Sept. 29.

Donald Trump and Fox News president to meet

 (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

The relationship between Donald Trump and Fox News has become an ongoing drama.

In the latest episode, Trump is now set to meet with the network's president, Roger Ailes, to settle differences.

Trump, the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, has assailed the network for its coverage of his campaign.

The Times' Stephen Battaglio has the latest details on the upcoming meeting between Trump and Ailes.

Read more

#TBT Bush/Quayle edition

I think he's kind of been exposed a little bit over the last seven days, and he's a very touchy and insecure guy and so that's how he reacts, and people can see through it.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on a Kentucky sports-talk radio station, responding to attacks from GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump.

Trump may have passed his peak, polls indicate

 (Robert Gauthier/ Los Angeles Times)

(Robert Gauthier/ Los Angeles Times)

There's almost nothing Donald Trump likes to talk about more than his steady rise in polls.

He may have to find a new topic.

A series of polls conducted since last week's Republican debate at the Reagan Library continue to show Trump leading the pack. But they also show a plateau, or perhaps a small decline.

The evidence for at least a plateau is strong. Polls by Fox News, Bloomberg, and CNN, all released in the last several days, have shown Trump stuck in place with about one-quarter of the GOP vote.

A fourth poll, by Quinnipiac University, showed a small decline, from 28% in August to 25% now.

Support of 1 in 4 primary voters is nothing to dismiss, of course. In a multi-candidate field, a person with that much backing could win a lot of primaries. But if that proves to be a ceiling on Trump's support, his long-term prospects would be dim as other candidates drop out.

Moreover, a plateau, let alone a sustained decline, could pose a particular problem for the real estate billionaire. Not only are polls a favorite topic of Trump's, they've also been a big part of the generally positive coverage that his campaign has received, particularly on television.

While Trump has come in for a lot of criticism, particularly for his stand on immigration, stories about his rapid rise in the polls dominated coverage during much of the summer. And in the campaign for the nomination, where entrenched partisanship plays a smaller role in voter decisions, that sort of news coverage can significantly help a campaign, just as stories about shaky polls can hurt one.

Congress applauds pope -- when he agrees with them


For weeks, political figures in both parties have wondered about the potential impact of Pope Francis' visit on the presidential campaign.

Francis' speech to a joint meeting of Congress is already showing how his message can scramble the messages of both sides.

A clear example came in three successive paragraphs of the pope's speech.

First, he set out his thoughts on immigration, citing "thousands of people" who are "led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities."

"We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories," Francis said, citing the Bible's Golden Rule and drawing loud applause, primarily from the Democratic side of the aisle.

Then, he reminded members of Congress that the "Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development."

That line, a reminder of the Catholic church's opposition to abortion, drew loud cheers from Republicans. But the applause died almost immediately with the next line.

"This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty," the pope said. As Republicans fell silent, a smaller group of liberal Democrats applauded loudly.

Trump wants to fire Rubio; calls him 'a kid'

 (Los Angeles Times)

(Los Angeles Times)

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has a new target for his political jibes -- Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

Until recently, Rubio had largely stayed away from criticizing Trump, and the New York billionaire had largely ignored him. But with Rubio moving up in some polls and Trump's lead slipping in several, that detente seems to have come to an end.

On Tuesday, Rubio criticized Trump for lacking knowledge of foreign affairs, and Trump has now fired back for two days in a row.

In a half-hour interview Thursday on CNN, Trump repeatedly referred to Rubio as "a kid" and called him "overly ambitious."

Trump also attacked Rubio as a Washington insider, a potentially potent line of criticism in a year when Republican voters, in particular, seem fed up with their elected representatives.

"Marco Rubio sits behind a desk sometimes, and he reads stuff," Trump said, "That's all he does. I create jobs."

So far, the Rubio campaign has not responded to Trump's criticism, but if Trump's pattern with another leading candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is any indication, the sniping will likely continue.

Little-known Martin O'Malley comes to SoCal

 (Scott Eisen / Getty Images)

(Scott Eisen / Getty Images)

The Democratic presidential hopeful you've probably never heard of is coming to town.

Martin O'Malley will be in Southern California on Thursday for a town hall meeting at Pitzer College.

The former governor of Maryland has been campaigning relentlessly despite trailing far behind rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the polls. Name recognition is a major problem for him.

O'Malley has released numerous white papers in recent months: on financial reform, criminal justice and immigration.

Immigration has been one of O'Malley's top campaign themes. His proposals include a pledge to extend deportation protection to roughly 11 million immigrants in the country illegally who could have qualified for a path to citizenship under a 2013 Senate bill. That puts him further to the left on the issue than any other presidential candidate.

O'Malley has made a clear pitch for Latino voters, granting one of his first interviews of the campaign to a Spanish-language news channel.

As yet, however, he has not caught fire with voters -- Latino or otherwise. In a Bloomberg News poll released this week, Clinton polled at 33% among likely Democratic voters. Vice President Joe Biden, who hasn't even announced whether he'll get in the race, was at 25% and Sanders was at 24%. O'Malley trailed at 1%.

The candidate is in Southern California through Friday. He'll debate his rivals at the first Democratic Party-sanctioned forum Oct. 13 in Las Vegas.