ST. LOUIS — There’s a month of mud left to sling and Donald Trump doesn’t seem anywhere near done.
Blocked inside their holding room by the space that had been set aside in case Trump decided to stop by (he never did), Hillary Clinton’s team — depressed at the nasty turn the campaign has taken but still defiant — prepped their talking points. “He tried to throw her off her game and failed,” was a favorite line. They also liked referencing Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high.”
But the strategy had been set going into the debate, and they say it’s going to hold: she won’t respond to the personal attacks on her, but she will respond to the personal attacks on anyone else he goes after, like former Miss Universe Alicia Machado or different communities he’s attacked over the course of the campaign.
“She’ll fight back extremely hard there,” said Clinton campaign national political director Amanda Renteria when she finally got free and into the spin room. “It’s about knowing when it’s important to lean in and when it’s important to make sure that she goes high.”
But the Republicans had already flooded out after the 90 minutes wrapped up. Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway was saying how “very proud” she was of what he’d said on stage, arguing that she’d be eager to make campaign ads out of his calling for Clinton to be locked up over her email scandal, but also about “him talking about [how] she shamed and blamed those women who her husband mistreated, and she mistreated them too.”
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was insisting repeatedly, “we all know that Mrs. Clinton lies.” Trump’s head of diversity and former “Apprentice” contestant Omarosa Manigault was hanging around at the end, teasing that the campaign is armed with surprises that include someone “messing around with Clinton Foundation staffers.”
The Clinton campaign believes that she will win in November. And they believe that she won Sunday’s debate. But they know all this with a grimace on their faces: this campaign season is about to go so far into the gutter that it’ll bore through the earth and come out of the gutter on the other side of the world.
“It’s sad,” said Marlon Marshall, Clinton’s director of states and political engagement.
Asked whether she’s concerned about where what’s left of the race is going to leave the country, Renteria said bluntly, “everyone is.”
Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communications director and a veteran of Bill Clinton’s White House in the 1990s, said they just don’t know where this is going to go. “I’d hope that we have hit rock bottom,” she said, but added, “I’m not sure where the bottom is with him.”
Many Americans were left at the end of those 90-plus minutes feeling like they needed a juice cleanse, a yoga retreat, some kind of deep mud scrub. Foreign reporters piped back footage of Trump threatening to indeed lock her up, taping introductions like, “If you think that only in third-world countries and failing states, people talk about putting their opponents in prison, well listen to this.”
Former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a Clinton supporter, said he believes the country shares his disgust at where Trump has brought the campaign.
“It is quite possibly now the lowest moment in modern history of presidential campaigns,” Nutter said. “He knows no depth that he will go. He has not one empathetic bone in his body and cannot seemingly relate to human hurt and pain, and just lashes out uncontrollably, recklessly.”
To the Trump campaign, from Giuliani dismissing “weak-kneed” Republicans who’ve backed away from the nominee, to gloating aides who walked around afterward boasting about inviting Juanita Broaddrick and Paula Jones to sit in the front row and having their candidate call Clinton “the devil” and hover close enough behind her at one point that he looked ready to lunge at her, this is just the real crucible of what it takes to win the White House. There’s no remorse. There’s no sense that things have taken an unfortunate turn. As far as Trump declaring she has “tremendous hate in her heart” — well, you gotta shred some lettuce to make a taco bowl.
“Campaigns can be a tough exchange of ideals,” said Trump spokesman Jason Miller, defending the tone of the campaign.
Hey, said, Sen. Jeff Sessions, America can take it.
"It's a strong country and this campaign has been aggressive all the way through,” he insisted.
In a certain way, it was always going to be like this. Frothing Clinton conspiracy theories are one of the great American pastimes, and she knew from the moment she made the decision to run that any campaign or return to the White House was going to mean whipping up the muckstorm anew, and more intense than ever before. This sucks, goes the thinking in Brooklyn, but that’s life if she wanted to try to be president. Barack Obama ran against a much different candidate in John McCain, but it’s not like he arrived at the White House clean of furious hate from huge chunk of the country.
Clinton’s debate performance is their own roadmap for what comes next: not engaging with his attacks on her own behalf but only when he goes after other people, continuing to talk policy, and pounding him with his own words—the ones he’s said so far and whatever else might come out of his mouth in the 29 days left.
“There is a pattern here of Donald Trump alienating people,” said Clinton campaign chief strategist Joel Benenson. “What voters react to are the things Donald Trump himself has said.”
Benenson wouldn’t discuss what they’ve seen in focus groups and internal polls, or whether he’s tested questions about Bill Clinton’s sexual past.
But he said he was confident that what Trump’s trying isn’t going to work.
“If you’re talking to people about issues they care about, you’ll do well,” he said. “If you’re not, and you’re trying to distract them, you won’t.”
They’re still rattled. Campaign press secretary Brian Fallon dismissed Trump’s attacks as “the greatest hits of right-wing conspiracy theories and a desperate attempt to inspire more motivation in the core supporters.” But they don’t know what is going to come next, pumped up by Breitbart News and the Drudge Report and news coverage from many reporters who may have spent the debate audibly aghast at multiple points but are nonetheless likely to spend the next month dutifully reporting every latest sling from Trump and going to Clinton for comment while it plays on cable news.
“We got 30 days,” said interim Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile. “Thirty days is a long time in the campaign and I think the best way to come together is to conduct ourselves in the final weeks of this campaign as if we’re Americans interested in solutions and not just another round of solutions and a litany of insults.”
Palmieri tried to see a path out, maybe even up, with the country watching television Sunday night and in the weeks to come and deciding this is too much, too far, that he’s just a hateful man and that this needs to stop.
“I’m an optimist,” she said. “I believe that stars burn bright when they’re burning out. And I hope that this hate and divisiveness is burning out.”
Maybe, Nutter said. Maybe.
“People will look at it as, ‘You have gone way too far. You have crossed every possible boundary of decency,’” he said. “It really is reminiscent of what Mr. [Joseph] Welch said to then-Sen. Joe McCarthy: have you no sense of decency, sir? Have you no decency within you? I think we found the answer today. Donald Trump has no decency within him.”
Darren Samuelsohn and Ben Schreckinger contributed to this report.