Kellyanne Conway is accustomed to dealing with difficult clients. In 2012, the Republican strategist advised Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, who peddled the phony notion that in cases of “legitimate rape,” a woman’s body has mysterious powers to prevent pregnancy. The remark helped sink the GOP’s shot at controlling the Senate. And it would turn Conway into something of a specialist in helping Republican candidates refine their pitch to female voters. At a 2013 House Republican retreat, she instructed members that rape was a “four-letter word” that shouldn’t ever be uttered in political campaigns.
Now the veteran pollster, 49, has another Akin-size challenge on her hands. Donald Trump named Conway his campaign manager on Aug. 17, making her the third person in as many months to lead his struggling crusade. The announcement coincided with a clear shift in Trump’s behavior. He (again) started reading off teleprompters at rallies, staged a photo op in the floodplains of Louisiana, expressed regret for causing offense with past remarks and signaled he might soften his hard-line stance on immigration.
Long a fixture on cable news shows, Conway has run her own Washington firm for more than two decades and advised Trump on and off for several years. She worked on behalf of Texas Senator Ted Cruz during the 2016 GOP primary. But she has never led a presidential campaign, let alone one that requires such a dramatic makeover. Her plan for Trump this fall is to put the focus back on Hillary Clinton, who suffers from her own high disapproval ratings, while pitching Trump as the change candidate to a restive electorate. Allies say she is up to the job. “An outsize ego is no match for Kellyanne Conway,” says GOP strategist Rick Tyler.
The first task: win Trump another look from the nearly 7 in 10 female voters who have a negative view of him. “She has thought more about the concerns of women,” says former House Speaker and Conway client Newt Gingrich, “than any other Republican I know.” The outcome is ultimately not in Conway’s hands. She can provide sage counsel. Then it’s up to the candidate to tame his own tongue.
–ALEX ALTMAN, ZEKE J. MILLER and JAY NEWTON-SMALL
This appears in the September 05, 2016 issue of TIME.