CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Lara Trump, the candidate's daughter-in-law, is just a “Carolina girl,” from Wilmington, she wants you to know, with “good Southern values.” And Donald Trump, “the man I know him to be,” is “a very humble, soft-spoken, funny guy,” with a weakness for McDonald’s.
That was the message of the wife of Eric Trump at a Wednesday appearance opening the first North Carolina offices for the GOP presidential candidate in the important swing state.
The only time her bright smile dimmed was when she characterized Donald Trump as “one, last shot to bring our country back” — and clearly and unhappily contemplated the alternative.
She was there to bring the sun, though, shaking hands with volunteers and party officials, speaking with the media and posing for photos framed by prominently displayed “Women for Trump” signs.
“There is a softer side to Donald Trump,” she said, trying put a kinder, gentler face on the reality-TV star candidate for the women voters who, according to polls, have yet to board the “Trump Train.” Together with daughter Ivanka Trump's lead role in announcing a child-care plan this week, it was a sign that Trump is trying to change his tarnished image with women voters with an intentional "charm offensive" from female family members.
“I would not be a part of a family, would not be representing a man who was anything less than incredible,” said Lara Trump, which should earn her prime seating at the next family dinner.
When asked about the new family focused policy initiatives from the Trump campaign, Lara Trump said she hoped they were “encouraging for women who may be on the fence.” And she deflected Donald Trump’s harsh quoted rhetoric about women by dismissing it as a media-created image of a man who is “an entertainer at his core.” In his businesses, she said, he is an equal-opportunity employer of women and minorities, many of whom also have not appreciated the slights, generalities and, particularly, disrespect of the legitimacy of the first African-American president of the United States.
When asked about Trump’s unpopularity with black voters, Lara Trump blamed it, too, on “unfortunate media spin.” Last month, she spoke at the Antioch Road to Glory International Ministries, where members of the predominantly African-American church in Charlotte — in a break from the majority of black voters — are backing Donald Trump.
On Wednesday’s office opening, the demographics were closer to the party’s predominantly white constituency in the state where African Americans, women in particularly, helped President Obama barely win in 2008. Mitt Romney carried the state by almost as tight a margin in 2012. The shifting 2016 North Carolina polls as well as tight races down ballot explain why the GOP is now playing catch up with the Hillary Clinton campaign’s on-the-ground efforts. (Clinton's first post-illness appearance on Thursday is planned for Greensboro, N.C., her second trip to the state in two weeks.)
The women who came to meet Lara Trump are already doing their part, and did not need much convincing that beneath the bluster, her father-in-law cares.
Volunteer Allison Powers, 58, of Waxhaw, N.C., knocks on doors for the candidate every day, 600 in a week, she said. Powers, who has an engineering degree and used to live in New York City, said she “understands” Donald Trump. “We need someone with a practical mind who knows how to problem solve,” she said. She said that Trump’s hometown explains his insults: “New York City has a ‘your mother wears Army boots’ mentality.”
Cynthia Clementi of Charlotte has taken her three sons — 21, 17 and 13 years old — along when she goes door-to-door for the Trump campaign. “I don’t like what I see in the country,” she said. She said she believes Hillary Clinton will appoint Supreme Court judges who will allow un-vetted Syrian refugees and other immigrants to become citizens. Then, she said, “They will show up to vote.”
While Clementi, 51, appreciated Lara Trump’s visit to explain the “real” Donald Trump, she, too, said she understands. “Have you ever been out and you say something you regret? He’s not a politician. He’s like us,” Clementi said of the billionaire businessman.
To those, like her, with Trump train, all of those controversial comments are just part of his outsider status, his charm. Convincing others who are not quite so forgetful or forgiving, however, is his challenge.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.