Donald Trump tests the limits of his showman style

(CNN)Donald Trump descended the famous escalator in Trump Tower one year ago Thursday to launch a presidential campaign that seemed so outrageous, provocative and unconventional that it was dismissed as reality television.

A year later, Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee. His showman style -- with its brass-knuckled tactics, defiance of decorum and itchy-Twitter-finger approach -- has created a new brand of politics that is entirely his own.
    Now he is testing the limits of his persona during the general election campaign. Republican leaders are distancing themselves from their nominee and his controversial remarks -- and he is threatening to go it alone without their help.
    Never have the lines between news and entertainment been blurred as much as they have in this presidential cycle. Trump has driven breathless, minute-by-minute press coverage injected with all the drama of a telenovela. Even amid the carnage and mourning in the aftermath of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, this week was no exception.



      Trump's wild ride to take over the GOP


    Trump used teleprompters and a statesman-like setting to address the nation, but the speech was every bit as outrageous, must-see-TV as Hillary Clinton's was predictable. Some Republicans watched with amazement as Trump used the mass tragedy to cast suspicion on President Barack Obama, renew his call for a Muslim travel ban, and advance the eyebrow-raising proposal that the United States should seal its borders to all immigrants from areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism against the U.S. and its allies.
    With a mind-bending twist that perhaps only Trump could pull off, a candidate who opposes gay marriage and has spent the past year appealing to social conservatives justified his proposed ban by stating it was necessary to protect the LGBT community, which was targeted in Sunday's shooting in Orlando.
    "We are taking in thousands of people into our country. We have no idea where they come from. We have no idea who the hell they are," Trump said on the campaign trail on Wednesday. "We aren't vigilant and we aren't smart. And we have to go and we have to maybe check, respectfully, the mosques."
    Trump's rhetoric this week, which was couched in a rejection of political correctness, elicited outrage from Obama.
    "Where does this stop?" he asked.
    House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is backing Trump, was forced to again denounce Trump's call for a ban on travel by Muslims.

    The show goes on

    But the Trump show went on. He dismissed the rejection of his remarks by the President as though the two were engaged in a personal quarrel. The real estate mogul reacted to the obvious discomfort among Republicans with a vague threat of parting ways with the party.
    The former secretary of state is showing a greater willingness to take on Trump more directly in pointed speeches and pithy tweets. But she has yet to prove that she can be nimble and effective in the new, furiously-paced political arena that Trump has created, and controlled for the past ten months.
    "His use of Twitter as a communication medium to bring conflict to his opponents, and have that conflict covered by the media in the way that ESPN covers sports is transformational in politics," said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who ran John McCain's campaign in 2008.
    With Trump's skeletal campaign staff and paltry spending on advertising, he has challenged the notion that a presidential campaign needs a massive infrastructure with hundreds of staff members and well-heeled strategists (though that may come back to haunt him as Clinton's ground game rolls into gear).
    Trump has also single-handedly redefined the bounds of what a candidate can say or do.
    "The culture around politics and discussion on the comment threads and the blogs has been disgusting for a long time," Schmidt said. "But candidates conducted themselves with a level of decorum and a sense of guard rails of what could be said. He's shattered that."
    Beyond the vitriol and shocking statements, UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck, argues that the other revolutionary aspect of his campaign, is the fact that he is running his political operation the same way he would run his business with "a set of tactics, instead of a set of long term strategies."
    In that sense Trump has taken political marketing and branding to a new level. It isn't just his refusal to back down when challenged over controversial statements or proposals -- like the Muslim ban that he doubled down on Monday -- but that he seems intent on following the mantra that he must repeat the same message over and over again, louder and louder. Everything he does is the best, the most amazing, and now he would extend his golden touch to "Make America Great Again."
    "It's the idea of business marketing, that if you can just convince the consumer that your product really is better, you're winning," said Vavreck, who co-authored "The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election."


    She noted the irony of how much the political landscape has changed since 1952, when then presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson refused to appear in political ads, because he said American people would be shocked "by such contempt for their intelligence" because the race for a White House wasn't "Ivory Soap versus Palmolive."
    By contrast, Vavreck said, "Trump has turned himself into a bar of soap. He's brought this business marketing model to the presidential campaign in a way that nobody's done before."
    It is far too early to predict whether any downballot candidates will try to replicate Trump's style -- or if any of them can command the stage as he has.
    But many are watching closely to see how Clinton will adapt, and whether Trump's style will wear on voters over time -- particularly on those Republicans who were cool to him during the primary process.
    Veteran Democratic Strategist Bill Carrick noted that Trump has a challenging task ahead -- particularly as the spotlight winnows to just two candidates and voters draw closer to decision time.
    "There was a huge difference between him and the 17 other Republicans who ranhe commanded incredible attention because he was more interesting as a personality, more interesting as an ideological outlier in the Republican Party, more interesting as this bombastic bully," said Carrick. "In the general election, it's a one-on-one contest. He's got to get more than 30% of the vote; and he's got to give the group of voters who have not participated in the primary some confidence that he's capable of being president."
    As he faced the new test of his candidacy for the White House this week in the wake of a national tragedy, Trump reflected on the past year.
    "I came down those escalators. And who knew this was going to happen," Trump said. "It's been an amazing journey."

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