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Donald Trump, Firework of Campaign Trail, Shows a More Measured Side

Donald Trump: "We can do things with oil and gas that will be unbelievable."

Donald J. Trump, once a great improviser, has started relying on prepared notes when he gives speeches.

While he once rushed to leave the stage after finishing his remarks, he now lingers and works the rope line, shaking hands for several minutes.

For months, he could not resist answering any question lobbed at him by reporters. Now, there is more self-restraint, at least by Mr. Trump’s standards.

Something unmistakable has happened to Mr. Trump since he announced his campaign for president in June: He has become a better candidate.

Whether his newly found discipline will shape his debate appearance Wednesday night remains to be seen. His aides have done little to forecast his approach, although, in a marked departure from the lead-up to the Fox News debate last month, Mr. Trump has been diligently preparing for several days.

It is a striking development that the candidate beloved for his brash, say-anything style would trim around the edges to conform to some of the demands of a presidential race, making him, in some ways, more of a typical politician. It suggests that, as much as the Republican electorate is becoming more comfortable with the idea of Mr. Trump as its standard-bearer, he is embracing the rituals and expectations of the role, too.

“He’s given in to customs like the rope line, which for a germaphobe is probably a pretty big sacrifice,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist, referring to Mr. Trump’s well-publicized dislike of being touched.

Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, said the political neophyte was “truly enjoying being a candidate for president,” adding, “I think he relishes the opportunity to interact with people directly.”

For much of the summer, the allure of Mr. Trump was his ability to be the Larry David of politicians: someone whom supporters saw as a truth-speaker, saying what they themselves thought but would not utter aloud. He has managed to maintain that appearance despite well-publicized feuds with people like Megyn Kelly of Fox News. But his image as a shoot-from-the-lip candidate obscures some of his recent strides.

He has tamed his tendency to speak endlessly. He mixes more with the crowd, ingratiating himself by handing out his trademark hats rather than darting straight back to the airport. (“Who wants one?” he asked over the weekend before lobbing a few toward attendees at his rally in Boone, Iowa.)

And, in contrast to his earlier addresses, which seemed aimed solely at a national television audience, he is finding ways to work in local references, a hallmark of any good politician. “I am going to the football game right after this,” he told the crowd in Boone before heading to the Iowa vs. Iowa State showdown in Ames. “Who’s going to win the game?”

At a rally in Dallas on Monday, Mr. Trump likewise tailored his message. He joked that the Dallas Cowboys’ victory over the New York Giants had guaranteed him “the friendliest audience” imaginable, and cast Texas as central to his ambitions for energy policy.

“We’re in Texas,” he said. “We can do things with oil and gas that will be unbelievable.”

In a departure from his usual practice, he spared most of his Republican rivals from ridicule and made a point, in his own way, to offer kind words to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

“If he comes out and attacks me on Wednesday night, I will take it back immediately,” he said.

But even in Boone on Saturday, the day after former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas dropped out of the presidential race, Mr. Trump put aside the fact that Mr. Perry had once called him a “cancer on conservatism” and wished his vanquished opponent good luck.

Mr. Trump has also used his speeches to pre-empt anticipated attacks, a standard politician’s tactic, criticizing the Club for Growth before it began an advertising campaign against him and doing the same with Karl Rove this week. The group Mr. Rove helped found, Crossroads GPS, has been viewed as a potential avenue for airing attack ads against Mr. Trump.

At certain points on Monday, Mr. Trump appeared so warm and conciliatory that the crowd was caught off guard. He spoke fondly of his former television employer, NBC, with whom he had a fractious divorce, praising the network for selecting Arnold Schwarzenegger as the new face of “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

“They called me up today, NBC, couldn’t be nicer,” he said. The crowd groaned at his mention of the show’s new star.

“You know,” Mr. Trump added of the network, “they finally calmed down.”

At another point, Mr. Trump promised Americans “so many victories that at some point, they’re just going to be coming out of your ears.” Quickly, he stopped himself. Last month, after the Fox debate, Mr. Trump had said that Ms. Kelly had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” which critics saw as an allusion to menstruation.

“I have to be careful what I say about coming out of someone’s ears,” he said Monday, to laughs. “Have to be careful! Nose, ears, eyes. Those are the only places I’m talking about.”

Roger Stone, who parted ways with the Trump campaign this summer but remains a fan and friend of the candidate, said that Mr. Trump was realizing he could go far in this campaign and was beginning to see himself as president.

“What may have started as an exploration — not a lark, but an exploration — has blossomed into a viable candidacy,” Mr. Stone said. “He has really found his footing. He’s adaptive, and he can win.”

There are still some lapses: A speech billed as a major national security address on the eve of Wednesday’s debate was instead a discursive riff with little by way of new substance.

But Mr. Trump, in Dallas, suggested that he might be adjusting his rhetoric, tempering the apocalyptic language that characterized the start of his candidacy in favor of a more upbeat tone. He described an argument with his wife, Melania, who had been upset, according to Mr. Trump, after hearing him declare, “The American dream is dead.”

“I said, ‘No, I said the American dream is dead, but I’m going to make it bigger and better and stronger than ever before,’ ” Mr. Trump recalled.

Ms. Trump was unconvinced, Mr. Trump said. He turned on the television, seeking proof.

“And it’s me standing in this big crowd: ‘The American dream is dead!’ ” he said.

“I was so angry,” he said, proceeding with a modified riff for the Texas crowd: “The American dream, it’s going to be better.”

The New York Times
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