COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — For weeks, Donald Trump flirted with a self-described "softening" of the hard-line immigration policies that propelled him to the Republican nomination, raising the hopes of party officials, some Hispanic leaders and skeptical voters unnerved by his presidential candidacy.
On Wednesday, he appeared on the brink of embracing that shift as he traveled to Mexico for a dramatic visit with President Enrique Pena Nieto. Against the backdrop of grand diplomatic pageantry, Trump lavished praise on America's southern neighbor and pointedly avoided insisting publicly that Mexico pay for the wall he's pledged to build along the U.S.-Mexico border.
He was measured and soft-spoken, almost deferential as he read carefully off prepared notes.
Within hours, Trump wiped it all away.
In a lengthy and fiery address on immigration in Phoenix, the Republican nominee said in no uncertain terms that Mexico would indeed pay for his border wall. He lambasted millions of immigrants as violent criminals and a drain on the U.S. government. And he vowed that no person living in the United States illegally could chart a path to legal status without first leaving the country.
"There will be no legal status or becoming a citizen of the United States by illegally entering our country," Trump declared, even has he sidestepped the dilemma about what to do with those who might stay in the country anyway — failing to address the major question that has frustrated past congressional attempts at remaking the nation's immigration laws.
Even for Trump — who has made an art of straddling both sides of an issue and playing to the preferences of the audience he's standing before — the political whiplash was astounding. It reflected the tortured debate between Trump and his advisers over how to position the unconventional candidate in the general election — a debate that rages on, even with just over two months until Election Day.
To be sure, Trump's daylong foray across the border and back was a bold gamble, reflecting his urgent need to shake up his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton. While polls have tightened nationally and in some key battleground states, Clinton has a massive advantage over Trump in what it takes to turn votes out in key swing states.
She also has multiple paths to the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House, while Trump's roadmap is far narrower.
The hastily announced visit to Mexico seemed intended to remind voters of Trump's brash, play-by-my-own-rules approach to politics. Trump was willing to risk traveling to a country where he is deeply unpopular and to meet with a leader who has been sharply critical of his views, going so far as to compare him to Adolf Hitler.
The reward? Voters now have an image of Trump in a presidential setting, standing side-by-side with a world leader behind a lectern, listening patiently to a translator relay his counterpart's remarks.
Trump advisers were jubilant after the visit, as was the candidate. One aide described the businessman as "very, very pumped" as his plane traveled to Phoenix for the day's final event.
But while Trump was in the air, the drama that never seems far from his campaign resurfaced. While Trump had told reporters in Mexico he and Pena Nieto did not discuss who would pay for the proposed border wall, the Mexican leader — after staying silent as Trump did so — tweeted, "I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall."
By the time Trump took the stage in Phoenix, any expectations for a softer immigration position or a more restrained candidate were squashed.
Trump raged against what he called President Barack Obama and Clinton's "open borders" policy, accusing the Democrats of caring more about immigrants living in the U.S. illegally than American citizens. Feeding off the energy of a wholly supportive crowd, he said any person in the country illegally who is arrested for "any crime whatsoever" will be immediately placed into deportation proceedings.
And in the night's most emotional moment, he invited relatives of people killed by such immigrants to the stage, encouraging them to each stand before the microphone to say their loved one's name aloud.
Clinton's campaign was unshaken by Trump's attempt. Campaign chairman John Podesta first declared Trump "choked" by not raising the issue of payment for a border wall with Pena Nieto, then later accused the Republican of having lied about the meeting.
And in a show of confidence, Clinton's campaign announced early Thursday morning that it planned to run its first television advertisements in Arizona, a state with a large Hispanic population that has been at the center of the nation's immigration debate. Only one Democrat — Bill Clinton — has won Arizona since 1952.
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AP writer Jill Colvin in Phoenix, Arizona, contributed to this report.
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