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Republican nominee Donald Trump speaks at "Joni's Roast and Ride" in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo: Reuters

Analysis | Analysis: Trump’s shift on immigration highlights struggle to attract more than core supporters

New York billionaire trails badly behind among blacks, Hispanics and Asians in a campaign catering to white Americans

Donald Trump’s latest contortions over immigration policy underscore one of his most daunting challenges: speaking to multiple audiences at once.

Presidential candidates often struggle to smooth sharp rhetoric as they move to moderate their image in a general election — Mitt Romney’s strategist famously likened the process to shaking a child’s Etch A Sketch.

But Trump, who won in a crowded primary season by obliterating nearly every rhetorical boundary, seems to find the task exceedingly difficult.

His support among Latinos, blacks and other minority voters ranks well behind rival Hillary Clinton, and in some cases, among the lowest ever recorded in polls. Perhaps more important to Trump’s electoral strategy, accusations of racist rhetoric have stymied his ability to consolidate moderate Republicans and independents, especially suburban women.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at Iowa Senator Joni Ernst's Roast and Ride at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. Photo: Reuters

Yet, adjusting his message to appeal to those groups risks alienating many of Trump’s core supporters, who are drawn to his tough promises to deport immigrants here illegally and the belief that he says what he means.

“It’s a little late to say, ‘Oh, never mind’,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who advised Florida Senator Marco Rubio during the primary. “He might conceivably make a little more progress with Republican-leaning voters who have been put off by his rhetoric, but you’ve got to balance that against the people who were attracted by him in the first place because of his pledge to deport 11 million illegal immigrants.”

Democrats and some Republican strategists have asserted that Trump may not really be trying to lure minority voters. At rallies across the country in recent days, he has been making appeals to blacks before nearly all-white audiences. He speaks about black life in the US in near-apocalyptic terms, overstating the degree of poverty, joblessness and violence among blacks.

Trump may be “trying to make affluent suburbanites feel like voting for him isn’t racist,” said Michael Steel, a former adviser to Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner and to ex-Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s primary campaign.

“It’s a difficult box for him because if he shifts to a more popular position, it undercuts his position as an outsider and truth-teller,” Steel said.

Trump often speaks extemporaneously, making it hard to pin him down on policy and easy to overstate the extent to which he is consciously shifting his words to court specific demographic targets.

During a Republican primary debate in November, Trump promised a deportation force, notably praising President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1950s-era programme that removed more than 1 million people under the outdated now-offensive name Operation Wetback. He reiterated his pledge to deport a day later, adding in a television interview that he would do it “humanely,” a phrase he has often used.

Republican nominee Donald Trump on the campaign trail in Iowa. Photo: Reuters/Carlo Allegri

And in his initial television ad that began airing last week, Trump reinforces his emphasis on tough immigration enforcement, with a bleak depiction of young men sprawled atop freight train cars headed to Texas, above the caption “open border.”

But Trump began signalling a shift after recent meeting with more than 20 Latino business executives, pastors, and civic leaders at Trump Tower.

Trump “acknowledged the hard part is the 11 million” who are in the country illegally, according to Jacob Monty, a Texas-based immigration attorney who attended the meeting, speaking by telephone from Houston.

Afterward, Trump insisted his policy has not changed, then began altering his rhetoric through a series of statements yet two comments this week left him new wiggle room.

“There’s no amnesty, as such. There’s no amnesty, but we work with them”
Donald Trump on his new immigration plan

In a Fox News interview Monday, Trump suggested he might continue a more vigorous version of President Barack Obama’s deportation policy.

Those who commit crimes, he said, are “going to be out of here so fast, your head will spin.”

Yet, he added, “as far as the rest, we’re going to go through the process, like they are now — perhaps with a lot more energy.”

He declared later at a Fox News town hall that “there could be a softening” of his immigration policy and even allowed that some immigrants could gain legal status, while stressing that they would have to pay back taxes and could not become citizens. The position was similar to several of his Republican primary rivals, which Trump at the time deemed “amnesty.”

“There’s no amnesty, as such,” Trump insisted Wednesday. “There’s no amnesty, but we work with them.”

Yet, even as Trump attempts to convey a shift on deportations, he continued to fire up supporters with tough talk about his central promise to build a wall along the Mexican border.

“I see all the stuff over the last three or four days coming out by the media that Trump doesn’t want to build the wall,” Trump said Thursday during a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire. “We will build the wall.”

Trump muddled his position further by telling CNN on Thursday that immigrants seeking legalisation would need to leave the country, “and then we can talk” about returning.

Trump’s supporters say he has not veered from the broadest outlines of his immigration platform.

“He’s been consistent,” said Representative Lou Barletta, a Pennsylvania Republican known for his tough immigration stance. “He wants to secure the borders and keep America safe and protect American workers.”

Like Trump, Barletta is uncomfortable talking about what to do with the 11 million immigrants here illegally, insisting it’s a complicated question that cannot be answered before other issues are tackled.

“I don’t think he’s at the point where he needs to talk about what he’ll do after we secure the borders,” Barletta said. “Don’t get pigeonholed because the media wants an answer.”

Mike Duff of Boone, Iowa, wears a t-shirt in support of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump . Photo: Reuters

Even if Trump changes around the edges, his reputation may already be cemented.

“There’s no doubt that deportations in particular, immigration in general, were one of the top three themes that you can attribute to the primary win,” said Al Cardenas, a Cuban-born lobbyist who previously chaired the Florida Republican Party and the American Conservative Union.

Cardenas, who backed Bush in the primary but has declined to make a general election endorsement, said the Republican convention marked Trump’s tone on immigration indelibly — with prominent chants in the audience to “build the wall,” and a prime-time speech by Joe Arpaio, the hard-line Arizona sheriff, with a wall as the backdrop.

He dismisses Trump’s overtures to blacks and Latinos, noting that just a handful of each have showed up at the events designed to court them.

“How do you meet with 17 (Latinos) 90 days before your election?” Cardenas said. “It’s better than nothing, but you question the impact that such a meeting would have on 50 million Hispanic Americans.”