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Byron York: Onstage, Trump sheds ego, lays off media, hones new role

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Back when Donald Trump was giving one hour-plus, free-form, jazz-improvisation speeches — that is, for nearly all of the campaign until the last week — Trump spent an inordinate amount of time telling audiences how great he was. He was the best at this, the best at that, he won this, he won that, his companies were the greatest, people loved him. A typical Trump speech included long stretches of nearly nonstop bragging.

Like much else in the Trump campaign, that has changed dramatically in the last seven days. In his speech at the Fredericksburg Expo Center here Saturday night, Trump was virtually brag-free for all 42 minutes. There was nothing about how smart he is, or his fabulous lifestyle, or the club championships he has won. Trump was instead relentlessly on-message from start to finish.

There was something else missing from Trump's Fredericksburg performance. The old Trump spent a lot of speech time bashing the press. He would point to reporters — whom his staff had penned up midway back in the hall — and tell the crowd how dishonest they were. He would accuse TV cameramen of refusing to turn their lenses toward the audience because they wanted to conceal how big the turnout was.

In Fredericksburg, there was none of that.

Instead, sticking close to a prepared text, Trump focused on a broad-based presentation of his agenda and sharp attacks on Hillary Clinton. And not much else.

Trump's new campaign manager, pollster Kellyanne Conway, laid out the strategy in a series of media appearances after the recent campaign shakeup. "When he takes the case right to Hillary Clinton, he looks at it as a tennis match, lobbing, lobbing, lobbing at her, not picking a fight with the ref, not booing the crowd," Conway said on MSNBC Thursday. "He focuses that way, he's able to do two things: He's able to be himself stylistically, he's able to be Trump authentically, and yet he's able to move this conversation into a general election contrast with Hillary Clinton."

Fredericksburg on Saturday was the fifth speech in a row in which Trump eschewed the long-form winging-it of the past. It began with a national security speech in Ohio, followed by a law-and-order speech in Wisconsin, the I-regret speech in North Carolina, and a Friday night rally in Michigan. In some of those, Trump seemed to be experimenting with an unfamiliar way of speaking. In North Carolina and Michigan, he made progressively greater departures from the text, to the point that if he kept it up he might be back to the old loosey-goosey style. But in Fredericksburg, he was strictly focused.

There were patches of conventionality that sounded odd to listeners used to the Trump of old. When Trump said things like: "Let's talk about what my reform agenda will mean for the citizens of Virginia."

Or: "I have a detailed ten-point plan on veterans reform, available on my website."

Or: "Another industry of huge importance to this state and country is agriculture."

It all sounded much different from the past. Trump also put more numbers and facts in his speech than he used to. He discussed the size of active-duty military forces. The number of ships in the navy. Changes in the defense budget. Statistics on coal use. The decline in energy-sector jobs. Agricultural employment.

Finally, Trump repeated his recent appeals for African-American support. And, perhaps thinking of his critics, he did it in a town, Fredericksburg, with a 24 percent black population — above the national number and well above the places in Wisconsin and Michigan where Trump made earlier appeals. Of course, Trump's crowd was overwhelmingly white — no different from most of Mitt Romney's and John McCain's and George W. Bush's. But he made the pitch again and will likely keep doing so.

That's the new and more disciplined — at least new for now — Trump.

His supporters seemed to like it. I talked to several, and none saw any problem with New Trump dialing back on Old Trump. Yes, they liked Old Trump, too, but if he needs to tone it down a little in order to win new voters, that's OK with them.

"I think it's probably a good thing that he's getting a little more organized in his thoughts," said Kevin Linhares of Spotsylvania. "His statement about finally saying he regretted it, that some of his statements hurt people — that was good."

"He didn't seem organized, and he seemed all over the place, and I think people didn't think they could trust him to lead the country when he was going off on all these tangents," said Kevin's wife Sara Linhares. "So I think it's good what he's doing now."

"I think it's probably a good idea," said Kevin McCarthy, also of Spotsylvania. "Don't pick fights you don't need to pick, and don't say things you don't need to say."

"Stay on task — hit the issues, hit the issues," added wife Debra McCarthy.

"I'm fine with it — if he needs to win over some people by smoothing out his edges, that's fine," said Stefan Drago, of Northern Virginia. "They get turned off by the brashness, and then they don't hear the message."

In keeping with his more organized presentation, Trump's summation is sharper, too — and more powerful than in the past. "A Trump administration will put American workers first," he said as he built to a close. "Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. We will bring America together as one country again — united as Americans in common purpose and common dreams. A thriving economy. A strong border. A powerful military. A peaceful nation. A rising standard of living. This is what I promise you."

All of the usual caveats about Trump apply. He's tried to change before only to snap back to his old self. That might happen again. But Trump is getting a lot of good feedback, both in the room and beyond, for his new style of speaking. It's positive reinforcement for a man who feeds off crowd reaction. And that might — might — be what keeps him on track as November draws nearer.