Trump campaign at crossroads after big New York win

NEW YORK – Ten months after announcing his improbable presidential candidacy at the midtown building that bears his name, Donald Trump returned to celebrate Tuesday’s crushing primary win in a lobby packed with family members, fellow billionaires, and a crowd of cheering well wishers.  

“I want to just thank everybody,” Trump gushed. “I have great, great admiration and praise for the city of New York and the state of New York. I can think of nowhere that I would rather have this victory.”

A lot had changed since that June day when Trump descended down the lobby’s gold escalator to become the Republican front-runner. The question now is how much Trump needs to change before he can complete his journey.

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In the months since his announcement, Trump proved that a candidate who breaks seemingly every unwritten law of politics could command a massive following within the GOP. He has flirted with the racist fringe, derided POWs, feuded with Fox News, made up facts at will, flip-flopped constantly, celebrated hideous war crimes, and alienated large swaths of the general public – and none of it slowed his momentum.

“We don’t have much of a race anymore, based on what I’m seeing on television,” Trump said Tuesday night. “Senator Cruz is just about mathematically eliminated.”

Trump earned his moment to gloat, but the race is far from over. While he’s right that Cruz no longer has a path to victory by winning pledged delegates alone, the real estate mogul is still in the fight of his life to win the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. If he falls short, Cruz’s more sophisticated campaign looks well-positioned to defeat him at July’s Republican convention.

Now Trump is grappling with whether the reality-show campaign that powered him this far can take him across the finish line without maturing into something more ordinary. And if it does change into something more conventional, would it lose the spark that made him a phenomenon in the first place?

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Looking to professionalize his campaign, Trump has empowered Paul Manafort, an old school Republican operative with a list of ethically dubious lobbying clients, over loyalist Corey Lewandowski, who became a distraction after he was accused of grabbing a female reporter. 

It hasn’t been an easy transition. There are regular reports of infighting over who has Trump’s ear – reports that Trump addressed in his speech.

“My team has been amazing, and you know, it’s actually a team of unity, it’s evolving, but people don’t understand that. The press does understand that, they just don’t want to talk about it,” Trump said.

Lewandowski and Manafort held separate meetings with the press at Trump’s speech, though each read from the same hymnal in celebrating Tuesday’s victory and predicting more wins ahead.

Trump may be downplaying the drama, but he is well aware that his campaign needed to make serious changes to compete in the complicated state-by-state delegate process dominated by Cruz so far.

Trump was swamped in party conventions in Wyoming, Colorado, and North Dakota – difficult contests to begin with that were hampered by his deficient on-the-ground operation. In Colorado, Trump’s campaign failed to pay fees to get delegates on the ballot and handed out error-filled slates. At the same time, Cruz’s campaign managed to install loyal delegates who would become free to vote Cruz in a contested convention despite being from states Trump already won.

“[Trump] recognizes this is a phase we have to go through,” Manafort told reporters. “The convention is another phase. And frankly when we get to the general election its a whole different phase and its got to be categorical.”

Trump, for his part, has responded by lashing out at Cruz, the Republican National Committee, and the state parties responsible for the individual party contests, all of whom he’s depicted as conspirators in a dark plot to deny the voters their chosen nominee.

“Nobody should take delegates and claim victory unless they get those delegates with voters and voting,” he said Tuesday. “And that’s what’s going to happen, and you watch, because the people aren’t going to stand for it. It’s a crooked system, it’s a system that’s rigged, and we’re going to go back to the old way: It’s called ‘You vote, and you win.’ ”

It’s not just the nuts-and-bolts campaign operation that’s up for grabs, though. Some inside the campaign told NBC News that they were concerned Manafort wants to dilute Trump’s message into something more predictable, disciplined – and boring.

Lewandowski on Tuesday confirmed reports that Trump was planning a series of detailed speeches on policy, an area of which Trump has until now preferred to wing it and clean up any resulting messes after the fact. It would be a break from the longtime mantra among Trump’s top aides of “Let Trump, be Trump.”

Whether coincidence or not, Trump has gone surprisingly long without an improvised feud or outrage dominating cable news. The campaign abandoned its announced plan for a press conference after his New York victory speech, where reporters would grill Trump on live TV about anything and everything as they have in the past. Instead his speech was short and on message.  

Manafort told reporters that Trump would still be recognizably Trump going forward.

“He’s setting the tone of his campaign,” Manafort said. “We’re helping him frame it but he’s setting the tone of his campaign.”

 Ali Vitali contributed to this report.

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz

Trump campaign at crossroads after big New York win