WASHINGTON — Donald Trump is wasting precious time.
By now, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee was supposed to have stationed senior staff in battleground states, moderated his fiery message to attract new supporters and begun raking in big money.
Instead, he’s spending more time right now picking fights and settling scores than delivering a message that might help draw voters.
Five long weeks since he defeated his last remaining GOP rival, Republicans fear the New York billionaire has squandered his head start. As Democrat Hillary Clinton eyes her party’s nomination, Trump’s campaign has been roiled by infighting, his battleground strategy is lagging and his fundraising operation is barely off the ground.
“I am getting bad marks from certain pundits because I have a small campaign staff. But small is good, flexible, save money and number one!” Trump insisted on Twitter.
Some would-be Republican supporters also fear his unwillingness to budge from a flame-throwing formula targeting immigrants and Muslims that worked so well in the GOP primary.
Case in point: Trump’s recent comments about the Mexican heritage of the judge presiding over a case against his now-defunct Trump University. The Republican businessman has refused to back down from his claim that the judge’s ethnic background creates a conflict of interest, drawing scorn from across the GOP as well as the legal community.
“Once you go down that road, you destroy America,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a prominent Trump supporter, said Monday in a radio interview with “The John Gibson Show.”
Trump also has been slow to adapt to other contours of an expansive general election. Since Ted Cruz dropped out of the race last month, he has spent precious little time in the battleground states that will likely decide the election.
He has ignored Florida and Ohio, preferring to spend the bulk of the past two weeks in California, which hasn’t supported a Republican presidential candidate in nearly three decades.
The ongoing rivalry between aides loyal to Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and to campaign chairman Paul Manafort appears to affect virtually all aspects of the campaign.
Two weeks ago, political director Rick Wiley was fired in the midst of a battleground hiring effort. While the campaign hoped to have senior staff in place across 15 states by June 1, the ex-political director did not finalize a single hire before leaving, according to an aide with direct knowledge of the hiring who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The positions remained unfilled as the factions pushed separate candidates to step in as Trump’s political director. Two campaign aides said Manafort appeared to win that battle, getting Trump to hire Jim Murphy, a Republican operative who was involved in Bob Dole’s failed presidential campaigns. The aides insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the hiring privately.
But Murphy’s hiring was a surprise to others in Trump’s inner circle, underscoring the level of confusion.
“Never heard of him,” Hope Hicks, the only communications staffer on Trump’s payroll, wrote in an email Sunday night after The New York Times reported Murphy’s hire.
A push to bolster the campaign’s communications shop has also met resistance.
The understaffing has led to missed opportunities.
After Clinton delivered a scathing foreign policy speech last week that doubled as a takedown of Trump’s qualifications to be commander in chief, he responded only with a tweet mocking her reliance on teleprompters — ignoring the former secretary of state’s record as the nation’s chief diplomat during intensifying international conflicts.
Trump’s slow start with fundraising also has sparked widespread concern across the party.
Trump and the Republican National Committee spent weeks hashing out a money-raising plan after he became the presumptive nominee and stopped funding his White House bid largely with his own fortune.
Yet starting from scratch has been a slow process.
Trump held a small donor gathering ahead of a May 24 rally in Albuquerque and a large fundraiser the next day at the Los Angeles home of Tom Barrack, a good friend and fellow real estate investor. He peppered the rest of his California primary swing with smaller financial events, said Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s national finance chairman.
By comparison, Clinton and her top surrogates have hosted some 17 California fundraisers since May 1 alone.
It has taken Trump several weeks to get new large-scale events on the books – although five in Texas and New York are planned for the coming weeks — leaving some of his fundraisers scratching their heads about his lack of urgency.
Rick Hohlt, a Washington lobbyist who has raised money for GOP presidential nominees since 1981 and plans to help Trump, said the campaign’s propensity for planning only two weeks ahead poses “a challenge for organizing some of these bigger fundraisers.”
Still, he said the candidate “may be right” about his ability to do more with less.
Terry Sullivan, Marco Rubio’s former campaign manager, suggested Trump’s greatest challenge is his inability to craft a message that appeals to voters beyond his loyal base.
“Trump is a political one-trick pony. He can really excite his base by doing the same trick over and over, but after the rest of the voters have seen it for the 73rd time, they’re still not amused,” he said.