Trump's Bad Week Raises Stakes for VP Debate

Trump's Bad Week Raises Stakes for VP Debate
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A week has passed since the first presidential debate, and Donald Trump is still struggling to get out from under himself.

A Sunday New York Times report revealing Trump may have avoided paying federal income tax for two decades punctuated a week in which the Republican presidential nominee dug himself deeper into a hole and further away from the voters he needs by: dredging up Bill Clinton’s infidelities, sparring with a certain former Miss Universe, and tweeting in the wee hours about her alleged sex tape.

Trump has blown past opportunities to rebound and in doing so has inflamed speculation about his chief vulnerability on the presidential stage: his temperament. The Times story -- that a near-billion-dollar real estate loss Trump suffered in 1995 would have allowed him to take advantage of tax laws and pay nothing to the U.S. government for years -- could further test his limits by throwing a spotlight on his business dealings and failures.

During a rally in Pennsylvania over the weekend, the GOP nominee projected an air of paranoia. He suggested his debate microphone inside the Hofstra University hall, which officials acknowledged had issues, was intentionally faulty and urged supporters to monitor polling sites on Election Day for fraud. He also impersonated Clinton stumbling to her car last month during a bout of pneumonia.

“I have a winning temperament,” he said in Manheim Saturday night. “She's got bad temperament. She could be crazy. She could actually be crazy.”

Trump calls temperament a “Madison Avenue” word, but it relates to presidential plausibility, and the issue concerns even those who support him as president. A late September Pew Research study showed 40 percent of Trump backers point to personality as their main concern with the GOP nominee, and 34 percent point to his temperament.

During the final minutes of last week’s debate, Clinton baited Trump into displaying his temper by evoking former Miss Universe Alicia Machado and Trump's later treatement of her, including chiding her for gaining weight. And his week-long reaction, which included 3 a.m. tweets, illustrated the point.

Trump’s response follows a familiar playbook, used most recently in his feuds with Judge Gonzalo Curiel and Khizr Khan. Even his most ardent supporters are imploring him to show more discipline with just five weeks to go before Election Day, and as Clinton gains a post-debate bump in the polls.

Trump has not only raised the stakes for himself in the next forum, but also for his running mate Mike Pence, who may be stuck in a defensive crouch during the first and only vice presidential debate in Farmville, Va., on Tuesday.

“He desperately needs to move on. I would take his Twitter device and throw it in the middle of the ocean,” says Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican strategist who heads a pro-Trump super PAC. “Obviously, Trump needs to get focused on the future and not the past.” 

Trump has been dangling the issue of Bill Clinton’s past marital infidelities since the end of the debate, but most Republican operatives and strategists cringe at the idea. Indeed, Hillary Clinton enjoyed her highest levels of popularity after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Trump supporter Newt Gingrich, who led the impeachment efforts against Clinton, knows how that strategy can backfire. He has publicly urged against it and has scolded Trump for prolonging the Machado controversy.

"You can't tweet at 3 o'clock in the morning. Period. There's no excuse, ever. Not if you're going to be president of the United States,” he told Sean Hannity of Fox News on Friday. "He's got to become much more disciplined ... This last week, I think has been, frankly, a lost week, a week which has hurt him, which has shaken his own supporters."

Long-time Trump backer Ben Carson told Fox Business, “It’s going to be so much better when he begins to focus on the real issues.” Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway told MSNBC: “I think he’s great when he pivots. I would encourage him to do even more pivoting.”

But other campaign surrogates and advisers, including Rudy Giuliani, are encouraging Trump to keep at it. “Every time a woman would come along and say Bill Clinton did something to her, who was the biggest attacker of that woman? And she’s a feminist?” the former New York City mayor said while introducing Trump at a rally in New Hampshire last week. Asked on “Meet the Press” Sunday whether he is the best person to wage those attacks since he has his own infidelity charges, Giuliani said, “Well, everybody does it.”

Trump has hinted he'll bring up President Clinton's infidelities at the next debate in St. Louis, Mo. His surrogates were given talking points to push the matter, which Trump and some of his allies believe undercuts Clinton’s message and appeal to women. But the format of the next Sunday’s debate isn’t likely to accommodate that sort of attack.

It is a town hall, where the candidates will answer questions from the audience and a moderator and demonstrate their ability to engage with and speak directly to voters. The format could provide an advantage for Trump, as he tends to feed off the back-and-forth with a crowd. But a tough question from an audience member could also test his temper.

Moreover, the issue of President Clinton’s infidelities and Hillary Clinton’s involvement isn’t likely to move the needle for Trump. Attacking Clinton on those grounds could have the reverse effect, says Katie Packer, a GOP strategist and former deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney, who has conducted focus groups of independent and moderate Republican women. “What was very clear to us from those groups of women was as soon as you started talking about Monica Lewinsky or Gennifer Flowers, that’s when they circle the wagons around her,” says Packer, who opposes Trump. “It’s not just tacky and classless, it’s bad strategy, and it’s not going to win him any new voters Republicans need to win the general.”

Clinton waved off concern about Trump’s charges at the next debate. “He can run his campaign however he chooses,” she said aboard her plane last week. Clinton had some practice when an audience member at a New Hampshire town hall during the primary brought up the issue. "Well, I would say that everyone should be believed at first until they are disbelieved, based on evidence," Clinton said. 

The Clinton campaign believes Trump’s Twitter account provides fresher material against the candidate. “What kind of man stays up all night to smear a woman with lies and conspiracy theories?” Clinton tweeted. This came in response to one of Trump’s tweets that read: “Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a U.S. citizen so she could use her in the debate?”

New polls taken after the debate show Clinton gaining group on Trump nationally and in key battlegrounds. A Fox News poll found the Democratic nominee gaining two points in a four-way race and leading Trump by five points in a head-to-head matchup. Trump led by one point just two weeks ago in the same poll. Other surveys show Clinton ahead in New Hampshire, Florida, and Nevada -- a state in which she has been trailing Trump.

The next debate, then, will be pivotal for Trump, especially since he squandered the critical time after the first one. 

“The way he can rebound is to be the Donald Trump that was in the first 30 minutes of the debate: on message and talking about things that matter to voters,” says Brett O’Donnell, a veteran GOP strategist and debate coach. “Do not be the candidate who showed up in the last 60 minutes: defensive and talking about things that don’t matter.”

The town hall debate is often the most memorable one, O’Donnell says, because candidates are judged by their connection to the audience.

“He’s got to realize he’s not debating in front of a sterile audience now -- the audience is now part of the debate. He has to play to them, and be focused on them and not her,” he says.

But the next debate doesn’t come for several days, and time is running short.

“People have started to vote already and that’s part of the problem,” says Rollins. “You don’t have until the end of the campaign.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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