Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump wanted a strong debate performance Sunday night against Democrat rival Hillary Clinton to reignite his campaign, but the emergence of a damaging audiotape this week is adding to his now uphill challenge.
Trump was already struggling through a tough couple of weeks, after the first debate with Clinton, in which she argued Trump was verbally abusive to a 1996 Miss Universe winner. And Trump appeared to make matters worse with a flurry of pre-dawn tweets that attempted to further assail the woman’s character.
On Friday, the 2005 audiotape and an accompanying video captured Trump making lewd comments about women.
“I really don’t know how he can dig out of hit,” Douglas Smith, a Democratic strategist and partner at Kent Strategies, said Saturday on Fox News’ “America’s News Headquarters.”
Following their Sept. 26 debate, Clinton leads Trump — a first-time candidate, wealth businessman and former reality TV star — by 4.6 percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics national polls average.
The nominees’ second debate is a town hall-style event Sunday night hosted by CNN at Washington University, in St. Louis, Mo.
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“If he could make the degree of difficulty go up at a town hall-style debate, which is already difficult … he just did,” Republican strategist Kevin Sheridan also said on “America’s News Headquarters.”
Sheridan, who was House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan’s spokesman when the Wisconsin Republican was the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee, further argued that Trump has never participated in a town hall-style debate, which he says are more difficult than other debate formats.
He also argued the tape has overshadowed WikiLeaks on Friday releasing a trove of purportedly hacked Clinton campaign emails that include the candidate saying during a Wall Street speech that she has become “far removed” from middle-class life and seemed to suggest support for open U.S. borders.
“She’s also going to have to answer for that,” Sheridan said.
The 2005 audio tape, and an accompanying video tape, released by The Washington Post and NBC on Friday, recorded a conversation between Trump and “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush in which Trump described an attempt to have sex with a married woman.
Trump also brags about women letting him kiss and grab them because he is famous.
Trump has apologized twice, including in a video statement in which he said: “I said it, I was wrong and I apologize.”
However, amid fellow party members’ admonishments and calls for him to end his campaign, Trump repeatedly said Saturday in newspaper interviews and on Twitter that he’ll “never drop out of the race.”
Beyond the WikiLeaks release and the tape scandal, Clinton and Trump, respectively, will have challenges talking about policy and politics in the town hall format, if past is indeed prologue.
President Bush conspicuously checked his watch. Al Gore got too close for comfort. Mitt Romney strode across stage to confront President Barack Obama face to face.
On Sunday night, Clinton and Trump also will be fielding questions from undecided voters seated nearby with the added dose of unpredictability associated with the candidates being allowed to move around the stage, putting them in unusually close proximity.
“There’s a lot more interaction, physical interaction,” says Judd Gregg, the former New Hampshire senator who helped President George W. Bush prepare for debates.
He said a candidate who is too aggressive in a town hall, either with the voters or a rival, “can come across looking really chippy, not looking presidential.”
After an uneven showing in his first debate, Trump’s candidacy may rise or fall on his ability to avoid falling into that trap. Beyond the Miss Universe issue, which emerged late in the debate, Trump also repeatedly interrupted Clinton in their opening contest and grew defensive as she challenged his business record.
He has reportedly reviewed video of the debate, and his aides have stressed a need to stay calm and not let Clinton attacks get under his skin in the second of three contests. The final debate is Oct. 19 and will be hosted by the Fox News Channel at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Both candidates are off the campaign trail Saturday to prepare for Sunday’s contest.
Trump, who prefers drawing big crowds to rallies, indeed has done only sporadic town halls and has rarely been challenged by voters face to face, except when his rallies are interrupted by protesters.
In a nod to the challenge posed by Sunday’s format, he agreed to advisers’ suggestion that he get in some practice at a real town hall Thursday night in New Hampshire — but then publicly pushed back on the idea that he needed to rehearse.
“This isn’t practice, this has nothing to do with Sunday — this isn’t practice, we just wanted to be here,” Trump told a small, invitation-only crowd in Sandown. He was joined by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who excelled at the town hall format during his failed presidential run and is helping coach Trump.
While the event had some of the trappings of what Trump will face Sunday, including a two-minute countdown clock on answers, it was hardly a rigorous rehearsal.
Trump didn’t actually interact with the audience, instead only conversing with a friendly moderator who read the questions — which were nearly all softballs.
Presidential town hall debates, meanwhile, are typically serious affairs and lack the liveliness of campaign trail events.
Clinton is far more practiced in the format and prefers smaller events with more direct voter engagement, as Smith argued Saturday.
Aides said she won’t shy away from raising recent revelations about Trump’s tax history or reminding voters of his pre-dawn Twitter attacks on a Miss Universe winner, but will aim to keep her focus more on the voters sitting on stage.
Seeking to raise the bar for the businessman, Clinton advisers said they do expect Trump to be more measured than in the last debate.
“But even if he does show up a little more disciplined than last time, I don’t think he’ll get a second chance to make a first impression,” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said of the town hall format.
The first town hall debate was held during the 1992 election and featured incumbent President George H.W. Bush and challenger Bill Clinton, along with third-party candidate Ross Perot. As a voter stood to ask Bush about the national debt, the president glanced down at his watch — a fleeting moment but one that seemed to reinforce criticism that he didn’t have empathy for Americans.
The wild card in the town hall debate is the physical choreography on stage. Candidates are seated but with no lectern or table to hide behind. They’re given hand-held microphones and are free to roam the stage to answer questions or challenge each other.
Four years ago, Obama and Romney circled each other on stage throughout the night. During one particularly heated exchange, Romney kept moving toward the standing president until they were arguing with just a few feet between them.
During the 2000 election, George W. Bush was answering a question on leadership when Vice President Gore stood up from his chair and walked unnaturally close to his Republican rival. Bush turned to Gore, and with a slightly puzzled look on his face, gave him a nod and smile. The audience broke into laughter.
That seemingly natural Bush reaction? It was well-rehearsed, according to Gregg, who played the role of Gore in Bush’s debate prep. Gregg said he’d expected Gore would try to intimidate the Texas governor, so he practiced walking close to him during their mock debates.
“His reaction was the exact same with Al Gore as it was with me — to look at me with a bemused smile and move on to his answer,” Gregg said. “We practiced.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.