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Political Strategists Weigh In On Whether Trump Can Turn His Campaign Around


A lot of people are asking a question that has been asked before in presidential election years. Can the candidate who's behind come back? And if so, how? Donald Trump has been trailing Hillary Clinton. And we're going to hear now from two veteran campaign advisers who have confronted moments of trouble. In 2012, there was that leaked video of Republican candidate Mitt Romney essentially writing off 47 percent of the electorate. Romney came across as out-of-touch. Eric Fehrnstrom was his senior adviser.

ERIC FEHRNSTROM: It was a damaging event. And it made for a rough couple of weeks late in the campaign, in September. But then Romney turned in a superior performance in the first debate. And the campaign goes on like a tennis match, with the ball moving back and forth over the net. But with Trump and Clinton, it's a one-sided match. And that's because Trump is a bad tennis player.

GREENE: Now, we also spoke to Doug Hattaway. He joined Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign as senior communications adviser right after she finished a disappointing third in Iowa and was heading to New Hampshire.

DOUG HATTAWAY: She had been seen as sort of an aloof front-runner. And then the loss in Iowa really shook things up. But she became a different candidate and started to campaign in a different way and be more accessible and more aspirational. And she had time to do that.

GREENE: As for time, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have 76 days left until America votes.

FEHRNSTROM: I think we're at a stage now where the most valuable commodity that these campaigns have is time. And that is rapidly depleting. And every day in the presidential race is going to be measured by who won and who lost that day. And I think...

GREENE: But the debate is a time when you can turn things around. I mean, it is an opportunity for a campaign like this.

HATTAWAY: Yeah, I think it is. But its biggest deficit is the candidate and his character. And what's happened in the country is as people have gotten to know Donald Trump through this campaign, many people have decided he's unfit to be president. So I don't think the debates are actually going to help with that 'cause once people make a judgment about character versus your personality or your issues or something like that, it's hard to change a character judgment.

GREENE: Eric, is the debate the moment that - the sort of last-ditch effort for the Trump campaign?

FEHRNSTROM: Well, I think the debate is going to be a challenge for Donald Trump...

GREENE: I guess debates - we should say plural since there are a few of them.

FEHRNSTROM: Well, I think it's going to be quite different from the multi-candidate debates that he participated in during the primary, where his top talk time would have been - I don't know - eight minutes. But now he's going to have to carry half the show. And I think that's going to wear on him. Now, that's not to say that there aren't unknown variables out there. There are. Notes of Hillary Clinton's FBI interview were just released to a congressional committee. WikiLeaks...

GREENE: This is over the whole email thing, yeah.

FEHRNSTROM: Yeah, WikiLeaks say they still have more hacked emails from the DNC to release. Who knows what they contain? But you don't want to bank on unknown variables as the path that will take you to the White House. What you need is a good strategy. And you need strong execution against that strategy. And that's what Trump is lacking.

GREENE: Doug, I don't feel like we are seeing a whole lot of Hillary Clinton. The campaign seems to have decided that - let Donald Trump be out there in the spotlight, and let him do his thing if that seems to be working. Is that a fair characterization? And do you think that's a good strategy?

HATTAWAY: I think she's been campaigning consistently in the way that she wants to campaign, which I think is more aspirational, accessible than you've seen in the past. I think it is a good strategy for her. And her best strategy is to be aspirational and don't talk about Donald Trump.

GREENE: Don't talk about Donald Trump?

HATTAWAY: Yeah, everybody's sick of talking about Donald Trump, I think.

FEHRNSTROM: (Laughter).

HATTAWAY: Let him do his own thing. I think the growth opportunity for her is Republican women and independents who don't want anything to do with Trump and would be open to her. So I think that is, to some extent, the people who are on her mind as she's out there campaigning now.

And remember, of course, that's largely in battleground states. And I think she has some opportunities there. If you look at the numbers, about 4 out of 5 voters have said they've made up their mind. So there's not a lot of room for either to gain. But I think she has more opportunity to gain.

GREENE: But she - I mean, she too has incredibly high unfavorable ratings. I mean, Eric, are there opportunities there for her to win over some Republicans?

FEHRNSTROM: Well, you know, I think I would disagree with Doug a little bit here, maybe take a broader view of the election. I think the election is about risk versus change. Trump wants voters to believe that only he, as an outsider, can bring the change we need in Washington. And I think he's right about that.

Hillary Clinton doesn't even bother disputing that fact. But what she does argue is that electing Trump brings with it too much risk. So knowing that, Trump and the people in his campaign should be doing everything in their power to put voters at ease about what a Trump presidency would look like. It's not complicated.

GREENE: All right. Hey, thank you guys so much for talking to us. We really appreciate it.

HATTAWAY: Thank you.

FEHRNSTROM: Thank you.

GREENE: That was Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012, and also Doug Hattaway, who was a senior communications adviser to Hillary Clinton in 2008. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.