Trump slows the bleeding but remains in crisis
ST. LOUIS — Donald Trump may have stopped the hemorrhaging on Sunday night. The question, senior Republicans say, is whether he was able to reset a campaign he appears to be on his way to losing in decisive fashion.
Most doubt he did.
The Republican presidential nominee took the stage here in St. Louis following the most disastrous weekend of his campaign – one in which he faced mass GOP desertions after tapes surfaced in which he could be heard bragging about sexual assault. While Trump avoided getting bogged down, and perhaps damaging himself further, in a back-and-forth over the tape, he showed less contrition than many Republicans hoped he would. And it’s not apparent he did anything to regain the support the bombshell 2005 tape may have cost him.
“It’s going to take him the full length of the rest of the campaign to make up the ground lost over the weekend,” said Austin Barbour, a veteran political operative based in Mississippi. “It’s not something you do in one debate, it’s not something you do in one week. If—and it’s a huge if—he’s able to regain the voters he either lost who were for him, or undecideds who had been considering him—if he’s able to do that, it’s going to take the full 30 days left. And that’s still a big if.”
Others were more brutal in their assessments. “Trump, for the first time, decently prosecuted the case against Hillary Clinton,” said one Republican state chair. “But it won’t matter—the story of the debate was written before it began. Trump likely slowed the bleeding but his campaign seems mortally wounded.” Added one knowledgeable Republican National Committee source, “He probably just saved himself from immediately losing RNC support but it will be a day-to-day decision from now until Election Day. I also think the race is over regardless.”
After a catastrophic first debate, many Republicans said they were heartened that Trump succeeded in seizing the offensive at numerous points on Sunday night. And, with his relentless attacks on Clinton’s character, he accomplished a central objective: exercising his base of conservative supporters, some of whom have become demoralized.
“Tonight he took the fight to her, she did not block the blows,” said Steve Munisteri, a former Texas Republican Party chair. “You never know till you see the polls, but this completely changes the dialogue, it reassures the Republican base voters.”
Watching particularly closely were party leaders in swing states – where Trump had been competitive until the Hofstra debate. Since then, Republicans have watched in horror as Trump’s poll numbers have plummeted.
“I think he did reassure the party. He apologized, he clarified, and he drove home the point that Mrs. Clinton is dishonest, her policies are unsuccessful and she can't be trusted to tell the truth,” said Robin Hayes, the chairman of the Republican Party of North Carolina, where surveys have shown Clinton opening up a lead.
Within Trump’s campaign there was a widespread sense of relief. A bad performance, some of them conceded ahead of the Sunday showdown, could have effectively ended the campaign.
“He stood toe to toe with Hillary and was more powerful in his arguments than she was,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has advised Trump informally. “The fear of a meltdown should now be gone.”
Still unclear is whether the Republican National Committee, which has been leading Trump’s get-out-the-vote efforts, decides to redirect resources to crucial down-ballot races. Many Republicans are convinced the presidential race is unwinnable and the committee is better suited focusing on preserving the party’s congressional majorities. This weekend, the committee directed some of the vendors working on the “Victory” program devoted to electing Trump to temporarily halt their production of pro-Trump mail until further instruction. Those working on the program say the committee is reassessing whether to alter its messaging in the wake of the potentially catastrophic revelations.
Shortly after the debate ended, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus sent an email to committee members inviting them to a Monday evening conference call. The call, which is slated to last 30 minutes, has no set agenda. House Republicans – many of whom have grown uneasy about their prospects of maintaining their majority as Trump’s poll numbers have cratered – are slated to have a conference call of their own on Monday to discuss the race.
Republicans said Trump’s performance would halt the stream of defections which began late Friday after the release of the tape and continued into the weekend, with a number of the party’s congressional leaders withdrawing their endorsements of the nominee and some of them calling for his withdrawal from the race.
But they expressed skepticism that many congressional Republicans would voice loud support for Trump. Many Republicans are deeply worried about more damaging information emerging about Trump’s past. Others are likely to be uncomfortable with his scorching attacks on Clinton – particularly his decision to highlight her husband’s past infidelities and his declaration that she should be jailed. While both lines of assault are certain to stimulate the conservative base, they risk alienating moderate voters who could determine the outcome of House and Senate races.
And for many of those running down-ballot, there is skepticism about whether Trump can win – and, hence, whether it’s worth hitching to his wagon.
“I think the toothpaste is already out of the tube,” said Robert Blizzard, a GOP pollster who is working on a number of downballot races.