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u.s. election 2016

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters in Charleston, W.Va.CHRIS TILLEY/Reuters

American politics is now witnessing the spectacle of a presidential platform made out of Play-Doh: perpetually malleable, offering different things to different people, and difficult to attack because its shape keeps shifting.

Donald Trump's a tough guy to pin down.

Few candidates for high office describe key platform planks as adjustable. But that's what he's done these last few days, when media have pressed the presumptive Republican nominee for details.

He says his tax policy could change. His position is flexible on the minimum wage. He's never actually provided details for how he'd ban Muslims from the U.S. And his central campaign promise to deport millions of illegal migrants — that's also in flux.

"I have no illusions," Trump told a weekend show on NBC.

"I don't think that's going to be (my) final (tax) plan, because they are going to come to me, including the Democrats and everybody else, they're going to come to me, they're going to want to negotiate.

"That's a floor. That's where we're starting."

The host was trying to ask Trump about his tax-cut plan, which appears to disproportionately favour the wealthy. Isn't that a contradiction for a campaign aimed at a disgruntled working class?

The details are negotiable, Trump replied.

It's true that tax rates are set in Congress — so Trump is correct that anything he proposes would get hashed out in complex negotiations involving different constituencies of two parties in two legislative chambers. But it's rare for a presidential candidate to be so blunt in declaring that his plan isn't really, well, his plan.

He had a similarly amorphous message on minimum wage.

He'd opposed an increase during the Republican primaries. But now that he's apparently won the nomination, he said the current rate of $7.25 should go up because it's impossible to live on.

Yet he's not calling for a national increase. He says it should be left to the states.

The stage is set for a nasty, smear-driven campaign about personality. As one political analyst observed Monday, it will be difficult to have a detailed debate about policy.

"I think (Hillary) Clinton's attacks on Trump are going to be more about his social issues controversies and his general preparedness — or lack thereof — to be president," said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at a politics publication at the University of Virginia.

"Tackling Trump on the issues will be tricky because he just changes his positions all the time."

The first week of the unofficial general election illustrated that.

Clinton's campaign put out two ads — both about Trump's general character.

The first showed famous Republicans describing him in unflattering terms: A con-artist, phoney, know-nothing, bullying, vulgar, narcissistic, race-baiting, xenophobic bigot who mocked one reporter's disability and another's menstrual cycle.

The ad ends with Jeb Bush saying: "He needs therapy."

The second ad has Trump, in his own words. One part has him passing on an opportunity to condemn a Ku Klux Klansman; in other parts he talks about punching protesters or punishing women for abortions.

Trump has hit back at Clinton's personality. He's suggested she was complicit in the 1990s in her husband's sexual mistreatment of women.

There is one more substantive issue he's campaigning on. It's been a constant theme of his interventions in politics spanning the last three decades: the U.S. is getting ripped off by foreigners.

Trump first took out political newspaper ads in 1987 complaining about all the money the U.S. was wasting to defend other countries. He was also complaining about trade back then.

In those days, the object of his ire was Japan.

"It's an embarrassment," he elaborated in a Playboy interview in 1990. "I give great credit to the Japanese and their leaders because they have made our leaders look totally second rate."

Today, his frustration extends to Mexico. He's slamming Clinton for backing past free-trade deals, including her connection to NAFTA, which passed while her husband was president.

How would he reverse the tide of globalization?

He's proposed a 35 per cent tax on companies that ship jobs overseas. Trump also wants other NATO countries to boost defence spending and rely less on the U.S.