Donald Trump repeatedly took jabs at Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at a rally Tuesday in North Carolina, hitting her for the email scandal, the spread of Islamic State terrorism and the Iran deal.
But the scattershot attacks fell short of the singleminded assault on Mrs. Clinton that GOP strategists are recommending for the New York billionaire to regain his footing in the race and start climbing in the polls. They are urging Mr. Trump to keep his message tightly focused on Mrs. Clinton to make the election a referendum on her and whether Americans think they are better off after eight years under President Obama.
“It’s not rocket science. And he’s a guy who can do it if he stays focused on it,” said Republican strategist Michael McKenna. “Every day he should just say, ‘Look, are you happy, are things better then they were eight years ago?’ And if you say ‘no’ to that, then there is only one choice in this election.’”
The message should resonate because Republican, Democratic and independent voters this year have demonstrated that they want to shake up the Washington establishment and break from the status quo. And Mrs. Clinton, a fixture in U.S. politics for 25 years as first lady, senator and secretary of state, embodies the establishment, the status quo and a continuation of Mr. Obama’s policies.
“No matter how you look at it, she’s a defender of the status quo. And no matter how you look at it, that’s a terrible place to be right now,” said Mr. McKenna.
He said there was still time for Mr. Trump to adopt the strategy and take control of the race, even if he did it as late as 30 days before the Nov. 8 election.
Mr. Trump began to steady his campaign with a carefully scripted speech Monday outlining his economic plan and drawing contrasts with Mrs. Clinton, who is tied to the agenda and slow growth of the Obama administration.
He came close to staying on message at the rally Tuesday, but he kept bringing the focus back to himself.
“I’m the messenger. But I’ll tell you what, the message is the right message,” said the real estate tycoon. “We’re tired of the incompetence. We’re tired of not taking care of our military. We’re tired of not taking care of our vets. We’re tired of so many different things.”
The lack of message discipline has been a hallmark of Mr. Trump’s run. His off-the-cuff stump speech thrilled his supporters and helped create the political movement that won him the nomination, but time and again it exposed him to criticism and scorn, whether from rivals or the news media.
Mr. Trump’s poll numbers took a dive last week amid his digressions into a Twitter spat with a Muslim Gold Star family supporting Mrs. Clinton, and polls this week continued to show him trailing.
“It is not that her voters are in love with Secretary Clinton — they just dislike her less than they disdain Trump,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the poll. “In fact, among Clinton voters in all three states, more than four in 10 say their opposition to Trump, rather than their liking of her, is the main reason for their vote.”
At the rally, Mr. Trump provoked an outcry when he suggested that “Second Amendment people” could stop Mrs. Clinton, if elected, from appointing Supreme Court justices who would abolish gun rights.
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks, although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know,” Mr. Trump quipped to the crowd in Wilmington, North Carolina.
An anti-Trump super PAC reported the remark to the FBI as a threat against Mrs. Clinton. Clinton campaign spokesman Robby Mook responded in a statement: “This is simple — what Trump is saying is dangerous. A person seeking to be the President of the United States should not suggest violence in any way.”
The Trump campaign said the candidate was referring to the “power of unification.” But the message once again was diluted by the self-inflicted controversy.
“He’s dug himself a deep hole because he’s allowed this race to become a referendum on his fitness to be president. If he wants to win this, he has to eventually make it a referendum on Hillary Clinton and/or the rigged system she’s promoting,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP consultant and conservative activist.