Phase I of his candidacy was an outrageous joke. Phase II is more conventional -- and that's a lot scarier.
This past week, Donald Trump just did his most outrageous thing yet: he started being less outrageous. It's time to acknowledge he's too smart to risk flaming out. On the contrary, like any other pol, he'll reposition as needed to stay viable as the campaign trail winds on.
Here are five ways he's crossed the line into conventional-candidate territory:
1. He's got an electoral strategy. Phase I was a national air war at cable-network expense; Phase II means ground troops at the state level. Picking Alabama for his recent rally shows that, whatever happens in the Iowa and New Hampshire beta tests, Trump is gearing up to play to his strengths once the race goes geographic.
2. He's tamping down the rhetoric. Gone is broad-brushing Mexicans as "rapists"; these days on "Face the Nation," he singles out "tough dudes" in urban Latin gangs that he says are the real problem in Baltimore, St. Louis and beyond. He's now trumpeting the "very big, very beautiful gate" smack dab he'll put in the middle of his Mexico-financed wall, to let "the good ones" back in who have lived here for "10, 15, 20 years."
3. He's playing nicer with Republicans. "I have nothing against Jeb Bush, I think he's a very nice person," he told George Stephanopoulos on Sunday. On Scott Walker: "He's a nice man...I like him very much." The gloves may have been off in the debates, but he took care not to throw them away altogether.
4. He's comparing himself to Ronald Reagan. Called on the carpet for his long history of left-leaning positions, Trump cited the Democratic starting point of our 40th president: "He evolved as he got older, and I have also," Trump said on Sunday. (He scored double by blaming his party affiliation on his long captivity amongst Manhattan liberals, a particularly neat sleight of hand. Poor Donald: what did they DO to him?)
This is a big telltale move. It proves that Trump is willing to 1) check the Gipper-admiration box and 2) atone for his Democratic party past. When he was kidding about some third-party run, neither was important; now that he's serious about becoming the Republican candidate, both suddenly are.
5. He's said as much. Back to George for more telling rhetoric: Americans "want to see proper change....We have no choice. We have to do it properly." You heard that right: Trump's the calm, reasonable one.
There was nothing "properly" about Trump's success in Phase I. But he's betting that if a more staid Phase II sells equally well without alienating his Phase I investors, Phase III could go all the way. If he keeps behaving himself just enough, the odds of the ultimate surprise can only continue to improve. Every line he crosses just gets scarier from here.