It was a risky gambit.

Donald Trump’s bid was to recast his trademark issue – draconian anti-immigration measures to rid America of job-sucking workers and keep the United States safe from foreign fanatics – in such a way that retained the tough talk while morphing the policy into something with wider appeal.

It was a two-pronged strategy: fly to Mexico for a statesmanlike appearance on the international stage, standing shoulder to shoulder with President Enrique Peña Nieto – who was only recently denouncing Mr. Trump as Hitler-like for calling Mexicans rapists and criminals – and then deliver a rousing campaign speech to fervent supporters in Arizona.

By the end of what may be the most important day so far in his improbable bid for the presidency, Mr. Trump had done both. Whether it was enough to broaden his appeal by removing the most odious, vote-losing elements of his immigration policies won’t be known until election day.

Much of the rhetoric remains but the guts have been torn out of his policy.

For instance, Mr. Trump still promises:

We will build a great wall along the southern border … and Mexico will pay for the wall … One hundred per cent. They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to pay for it.

Except Mr. Pena Nieto says no and claims he told Mr. Trump that to his face – although the Mexican President stood silent at a joint news conference where his guest said payment wasn’t even discussed.

But even if the wall gets built, it was always the least contentious, least politically problematic of Mr. Trump’s sweeping array of policies. In fact, toughening the southern border has been a theme of every presidential candidate from both parties for nearly two decades.

What was omitted from Mr. Trump’s speech was far more important – and a far bigger gamble – than repeating the crowd-pleasing vision of a great wall. Gone was the pledge to round up and deport all 11 million illegal immigrants. Gone was the special “deportation force” that Mr. Trump once promised to create to conduct the massive search and seizure of those millions living in the shadows – and often living with lawfully resident or citizen members in the same families.

Gone was the vow to ban all Muslims from entering America. Gone was the call for special surveillance on Muslims. (So gone, in fact, that Mr. Trump never uttered the word “Muslim” in his long speech.)

In their place were fuzzy, policy-wonk campaign phrases with plenty of wiggle room, just the sort of wishy-washy stuff Mr. Trump usually decries.

But then it’s tough to be statesmanlike, broadly appealing to the undecided and stridently politically incorrect all within the space of a few hours.

Instead of urging a massive roundup and deportation, Mr. Trump said – like the current president, and most previous ones – that dealing with the already present 11 million undocumented immigrants would have to wait. “There are many illegal immigrants in our country who are good people,” Mr. Trump allowed.

Mr. Trump said dealing with the millions already unlawfully inside the United States would wait until some vague later date. “Then and only then will we be in a position to consider the appropriate disposition of those individuals who remain … allowing us to weigh the different options available based on the new circumstances at the time,” Mr. Trump read, seemingly with distaste.

Instead, the focus would first be finding fugitive criminals and those with a history of violence, which is exactly the deportation priority of the current Obama administration.

Similarly, Mr. Trump swapped out his ban on all Muslims entering the United States for a tough-sounding but no longer faith-based targeting of violent fanatics: I call it extreme vetting, right? Extreme vetting. I want extreme. It’s going to be so tough, and if somebody comes in that’s fine but they’re going to be good. It’s extreme.

Once again, Mr. Trump attempted to retain the tough talk while removing the odious labelling that has made him both wildly popular with his core supporters and deeply suspect among many Americans.

But Mr. Trump can’t stay on message – especially the carefully worded message scripted by speechwriters.

So there were moments of Trumpian bombast that rallied the faithful and produced the biggest cheers of the night. Those moments came, as always, when Mr. Trump stopped squinting to his left, stopped reading the prepared text rolling on the Teleprompter, and shifted into his more natural populist gear.

Mr. Trump is at his best – or worst, depending on who is listening – when he goes on the attack, disparaging adversaries or loosely lumping real or imagined threats into easily targeted groups.

Consider, for instance, how one key element of his once-draconian program has morphed into something far less sweeping while retaining the buzz words. While the “deportation force” is gone as policy, it lingers as a politically charged rallying call:

I am going to create a new special deportation task force focused on identifying and quickly removing the most dangerous criminal illegal immigrants in America who have evaded justice.

The Republican presidential nominee added, with a smile and a Trumpian punch line: “Just like Hillary Clinton has evaded justice.” The crowd exploded in cheers.

“Maybe they’ll be able to deport her,” grinned Mr. Trump.

WASHINGTON The Globe and Mail
Last updated: Thursday, Sep. 01, 2016 2:24PM EDT