Within minutes of Sunday night’s debate, Donald Trump turned the biggest moment of the presidential campaign into what his bid for the White House has always been at its core: a wild, unruly, anger-fueled spectacle.
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The main message Trump drove home at the general election season's second presidential debate, in St. Louis, was of visceral hatred of Hillary and Bill Clinton and what they’ve come to represent. With women who feel wronged by the Clintons just footsteps away, he unloaded on Bill Clinton as “abusive to women,” accused Hillary Clinton of laughing off the pain of a rape victim and said flatly that his opponent would be jailed if he becomes president.
Those efforts, vicious and downright ugly as they were, may be enough to calm the Trump base by reminding core Republicans of the choice that’s now less than 30 days away. When the debate turned to policy and honesty, he hammered Hillary Clinton as representing an old way of thinking — and worse.
“She lied. Now she is blaming the lie on the late great Abraham Lincoln,” Trump said in one of his more effective exchanges. “That’s one that I haven’t heard. Honest Abe never lied.”
But this was Trump riding alone. After days of erstwhile allies’ bolting, amid pleas for him to fully apologize for his vile and vulgar comments about women, his answer was to attack.
It should no longer come as a surprise that that’s where his instincts take him. And it’s hard to see this strategy adding to his campaign’s appeal at this late stage.
As for those still with him, Trump broke publicly with his still loyal running mate, Mike Pence, over how to handle the humanitarian crisis in Syria. In the aftermath, Pence was left spinning how Trump’s saying, “He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree” wasn’t actually a disagreement.
Clinton came in with an entirely different strategy from the one she used in their first debate, when she pestered Trump into losing his cool. At the rematch Sunday, she seemed content for Trump to do his own digging, even as she was forced to answer for a series of damaging issues.
Clinton said she would “go high,” though, in fact, she kept her main critique of Trump alive.
“It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” she said.
“Because you’d be in jail,” Trump countered.
It’s fair to surmise that Trump stopped his campaign bleeding with his performance Sunday night. But his is a campaign suffering from more than mere cuts and scratches; the blood lost is unlikely to flow back into the patient.
Some Republicans were even privately rooting for a full-on Trump implosion, to give license to more party members to cut loose from Trump. They didn’t get that, but neither did they get the kind of rousing resurgence that suggests a campaign turnaround is at hand.
Trump is making clear that he intends to end his campaign how it started. He may wind up as lonely as he was back when nobody gave him a chance.
But he won’t go down without a fight — and a show.