By Jonathan Swan - 11-04-16 15:34 PM EDT
Donald Trump is closing his campaign strongly, staying on message and keeping his impulses in check as he rides cresting momentum into Election Day.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton now leads Trump by an average of just 1.7 percentage points nationally, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. Less than three weeks ago, Clinton led by 7 points on the same model.
Trump remains the underdog and has only a narrow road to victory. He must hold every state Mitt Romney won in 2012, add Ohio, Iowa and Florida, and then flip a blue state or two.
But the Republican's chances keep growing - and he has kept himself on message as media coverage has focused on Clinton and the FBI's investigation of her private email server.
FiveThirtyEight's forecast model gives Trump a 34 percent chance of winning. On Oct. 17, the same model gave Trump a 12 percent chance.
Trump has surely been helped by the FBI controversy, which has kept the spotlight on Clinton's biggest vulnerability. But he's also managed to get out of the way of it, something he often failed to do in the past during moments of controversy.
"He has done very well and I think will finish well," said Republican strategist Charlie Black, a friend of Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. "This is going to be very close.
It's not just the FBI probe that is helping Trump, either.
"Another major factor," Black added, "is all the news about ObamaCare's huge premium increases."
For a time in October, Trump's candidacy looked to be dying off.
He struggled through the three presidential debates and his campaign was thrown off balance on Oct. 7, when a 2005 tape emerged of Trump on an "Access Hollywood" hot microphone speaking lewdly about women.
The debate two days later was dominated in part by that news, and in the following days multiple women came forward with accusations of sexual misconduct by the GOP nominee.
Trump also battled with Republicans at the time, re-opening a feud with Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.) and then suggesting at the final debate that the election was rigged.
Trump hasn't been emphasizing those issues in recent days, and Republican voters, as The Hill reported this week, are finally coming home to Trump after months of flagging support threatened to put the White House beyond reach.
Ryan is campaigning this weekend in his home state with GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has for the longest time refused to even mention Trump's name, rewarded the GOP nominee with a full-throated endorsement this week. Two of Trump's former GOP presidential rivals, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, are now actively campaigning for his victory.
On the stump, Trump is talking less about defeat. He's offering fewer excuses - talking less about ballot fraud - and is more inclined to boast about his rising poll numbers. And after advice from campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, first reported by the New Yorker, voters are unlikely to ever again hear Trump muse about the "very, very nice, long vacation" he'll take and the "very good life" he'll return to if he loses on Nov. 8.
In Selma, N.C., on Thursday night, Trump appeared to campaign, perhaps for the first time this season, like a man who has something to lose. He struck a subdued, steady tone and was self-deprecating, mocking his own financial risk-taking as nothing compared to the bravery of his military supporters.
"We treat him like a toddler who should get an electoral cookie for not soiling himself in public," said Liam Donovan, a former aide to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "Then again, Republican voters seem to be rewarding him for it, so go figure."
More than anything he has done or said, Donovan thinks Trump's improved standing probably has to do with FBI Director James Comey shifting the public's focus to Clinton by informing lawmakers last week of the FBI's discovery of emails that may be relevant to the bureau's investigation into whether Clinton mishandled classified information.
"Especially insofar as FBI leaks and WikiLeaks chatter have crowded out any Trump oppo," he added, "and kept what has been dropped from getting any real traction."
Polling experts have observed that Trump and Clinton, two historically distrusted general election candidates, both tend to do better when the media's spotlight settles on the other. Over the past week - but for a few exceptions such as the stories about Trump's tax manipulations and alleged Russian ties - Clinton has been constantly in the news, and not for good reasons.
Nobody who works for Trump is claiming he's reformed or that his newfound discipline is anything close to permanent. But if he stays steady, hammers his populist message and refrains from mocking the looks of women who are accusing him of sexual misconduct, Trump's allies like his chances.
Those are, however, big ifs.
As the campaign enters its final days, Trump will likely keep wrestling against his wilder impulses. And the wrestling may sometimes happen in public.
At a Trump rally Wednesday in Pensacola, Fla., the crowd laughed as the GOP nominee gave himself an on-stage pep talk.
"We are going to win the White House, gonna win it," he said. "We're going to be nice and cool, nice and cool. Stay on point, Donald, stay on point."
"No sidetracks, Donald," he added. "Nice and easy."
Trump told his Florida fans he'd watched Clinton become "unhinged" in recent days.
"We don't want any of that," he said.
Rebecca Savransky contributed reporting.