BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Casting his campaign chairman aside with just 11 weeks until Election Day, Donald Trump moved ahead with the reboot of his White House bid on Friday with a tour of flood-ravaged Louisiana.
A day after striking a more conciliatory tone and expressing rare "regret" for provocative remarks, Trump basked in the appreciation of a group of aid volunteers gathered at a Baton Rouge church. It was a visit that drew a contrast with President Barack Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who have yet to visit in the wake of flooding that dropped a devastating 2 feet of rain on a part of the state hit hard by Hurricane Katrina over a decade ago.
Trump and running mate Mike Pence drove past piles of ripped-up carpet, furniture and personal belongings discarded on curbs following flooding that's killed 13 people and displaced thousands.
Yet the camera-ready campaign stop did little to obscure the turmoil in Trump's campaign, punctuated early Friday when Trump announced that he'd accepted campaign chairman Paul Manafort's offer to resign. Manafort's departure followed a string of revelations about his work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
Those revelations included an Associated Press report from Thursday, which revealed Manafort's firm orchestrated a covert U.S. lobbying operation on the party's behalf. Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, never disclosed their work as foreign agents as required under federal law.
Trump, in a statement, praised Manafort's work on the campaign and called him a "true professional." Trump's son Eric, meanwhile, told Fox News that Manafort "was amazing," but his father didn't want to be "distracted by whatever things Paul was dealing with."
Gates, for his part, planned to stay. Campaign spokesman Jason Miller announced on Twitter that Gates would take on a new role as liaison to the Republican National Committee, which has had a turbulent relationship with its nominee this year.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, residents emerged from their waterlogged homes to wave at Trump's motorcade, some with gloved hands dirty from their house-gutting work. At a Baptist church later, a woman screamed "Thank you for coming, Mr. Trump" as he and Pence sat down with volunteers.
"We knew you would be here for us!" another volunteer shouted.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said ahead of Trump's visit that he wouldn't be involved, adding that Trump is welcome, "but not for a photo-op." Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said in a statement that "we hope he'll consider volunteering or making a sizable donation to the LA Flood Relief Fund to help the victims of this storm. "
Trump said this week he's overhauling his campaign operation, bringing in a new chief executive and appointing a new campaign manager. Trump's decision to tap Stephen Bannon, a combative conservative media executive, as his new campaign chief suggested to some that he might continue the divisive rhetoric that has angered minorities and alienated large swaths of the general election electorate.
Trump's trip to Louisiana, a departure for the candidate who has generally preferred mass rallies and television phone-ins, comes a day after he made a rare expression of remorse. In a highly uncharacteristic move at a rally in North Carolina on Thursday night, Trump said for the first time that he regrets some of the caustic comments he's made in "the heat of debate."
"Sometimes in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don't choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that," the GOP nominee said, reading from prepared text. "And believe it or not, I regret it — and I do regret it — particularly where it may have caused personal pain."
It was a rare admission for a man who has said that he prefers "not to regret anything" and it underscored the dire situation Trump finds himself in. With just 80 days left until the election, Trump is trailing Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in preference polls of most key battleground states.
Also Friday, Trump started airing his first ads of the general election after moving a day earlier to invest nearly $5 million in battleground state advertising. The inaugural accuses Clinton of rigging the election and hammers her on her position on immigration.
Clinton, by contrast, has spent more than $75 million on advertising in 10 states since locking up her party's nomination.
Despite mounting pressure, the White House said Obama was unlikely to break from a New England vacation to survey the damage in Louisiana. In an editorial published Wednesday, The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge called on Obama to visit "the most anguished state in the union." But Louisiana's Democratic governor defended the decision, saying he'd prefer Obama hold off because of the burden that a presidential visit places on police and first responders who are focused on responding to the flooding.
Trump's new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway suggested that Trump's visit was part of a larger effort, like his speech on Thursday, to pivot to a more presidential phase.
"It's also presidential today to have him and Gov. Pence going to Louisiana in a decidedly nonpolitical event," she told ABC, adding that they would be "going to help people on the ground who are in need."
AP writers Steve Peoples, Julie Bykowicz and Lisa Lerer in Washington contributed to this report.