Trump Pooh-Poohs Debate Prep at N.H. Event

Trump Pooh-Poohs Debate Prep at N.H. Event
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SANDOWN, N.H.—Microphone in hand, Donald Trump took questions from the friendly crowd in the small, wood-paneled town hall here Thursday night, but he insisted the gathering was not preparation for the presidential debate in two days. 

In many ways, he was right.

The event many anticipated would be a dry run for Sunday night’s town hall forum bore little resemblance to the format expected in St. Louis, where journalists will moderate and undecided voters will pose questions directly to the candidates.

“This has nothing to do with Sunday,” the GOP nominee told the group of nearly 200 people, invited by the campaign, as they packed into the toasty hall. “Forget debate prep -- give me a break.” 

The interactive format of Sunday’s second presidential debate, hosted by the non-partisan Presidential Debate Commission, is designed to test the candidates’ ability to engage and connect with voters. 

For two White House hopefuls who are historically unpopular, Sunday could tip the scales for voters still deciding whether and how to cast their ballots. There is additional pressure for Trump, who by nearly all accounts, except his own, lost the first debate and, perhaps more importantly, failed to recover in the days following. Criticized by even some supporters for not preparing adequately, Trump came to the Granite State for a dress rehearsal. His campaign has set high expectations for the real performance, arguing that Trump feeds off voter engagement.

Thursday’s trial wasn’t an accurate simulation, but it did seem to energize the GOP nominee.

“I like this audience,” he said to cheers. 

To Trump’s right stood Chris Christie, who in June made the Sandown Town Hall his first stop after announcing his candidacy. The New Jersey governor made his mark on New Hampshire during the GOP primary with his unique and deeply personal town halls across the state, where he answered questions from everybody and anybody with specifics, colored by anecdotes. Christie is now advising Trump, who won the state last February and was welcomed Thursday night with open arms. 

The GOP nominee kicked off the event by offering thoughts for those affected by Hurricane Matthew, then read off a list of new polls from battleground states. He then stood for roughly 40 minutes while he was asked a dozen questions submitted by audience members, posed by Boston-based Republican radio show host Howie Carr, who rallied the group with, “We all love Trump, right?”  

Participants asked Trump whether he held back against Clinton in the last debate (“I did”) and whether he would go after her on Sunday (“We’ll see”). He was asked how he would “clean house” if he is elected, how he would convince Hispanics who are “deceived by Obama and Clinton” to vote for him, and what he believed to be foreign policy failures. 

Toward the end, Carr said he would now ask “the kind of question Hillary Clinton gets,” to which Trump said, “She gets the easy ones.” The host then asked Trump about his favorite childhood memories.

Throughout the program, Trump scoffed at the idea of debate preparation. He argued that Clinton only claims to be preparing for Sunday’s debate, as she did this week at her Washington home, and that she is really just “resting … to build up her energy for Sunday night.” 

The Clinton campaign believes its candidate has more experience and comfort in town hall settings, but it also has higher expectations for Trump. “We expect a more focused, more prepared Trump at this debate,” said campaign manager Robby Mook on a conference call with reporters.

Clinton has also been conducting more news conferences and gaggles with reporters after being criticized for avoiding the press for several months. Trump hasn’t held a press conference in weeks and has confined his interviews to friendly turf on “Fox and Friends” and Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. During Thursday night’s event here, he continued to talk about the faulty microphone at the last debate. 

Trump supporters believe Sunday’s format will showcase the candidate they enthusiastically endorse. During the rehearsal here, Trump offered glimpses. When 22-year-old Kaffa Cote, who recently graduated from college with honors, asked Trump how he would help young people struggling to find jobs, the GOP nominee heaped praise on her. He railed against student debt and jobs going to other countries. “I want to see the day when you can get those great marks and that incredible profession that you love,” he told her. The answer might have been meandering and short on specifics, but it thrilled the questioner. 

“He talks to you like you're a person not just like you’re a vote,” Cote, a Londonderry resident who voted for Trump in the primary, told RCP. “I knew he was actually talking about me and to me. It means a lot.”

Cote and other supporters here encouraged Trump to focus on issues and the voters asking the questions in the upcoming debate. “I don’t think he needs to go in the gutter. I think that’s something she likes to do and he doesn’t need to do that,” Cote said. “He’s the change candidate.”

“I would say it’s just a matter of focusing on Hillary Clinton and her record,” said Linnie Leavines, a Manchester resident who works in marketing. “I think it speaks for itself, but now is a time to really highlight that and draw a comparison between the two candidates.”

Trump took opportunities to swipe at Clinton Thursday night. But he also ventured off message and gave in to impulses. He criticized Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, who rescinded his endorsement of Trump. Kirk is facing a tough re-election fight and could lose his seat in November. “That’s his problem,” Trump said. He also dismissed news about 30 GOP lawmakers writing an anti-Trump letter this week, saying he wouldn’t need them.

Trump’s off-message style, though, endears him to supporters like Ruth Boudreau, a Winthrop, Mass., resident who drives to New Hampshire each day after work to knock on doors for the Trump campaign. 

“What people find offensive … I find that he loves his country. I find that he’s angry and tired. That’s how I am,” said Boudreau, who works for a telephone company and belongs to a union. “There’s something wrong with this country and Donald Trump can save us. I truly believe that,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye. “I would take a bullet for Donald Trump.” 

Some, though, are hoping Trump exhibits more discipline on Sunday. “Hold himself together and don’t get baited,” said Kim Colbert, a sonogram technician from Hampstead. Colbert said she is deciding between voting for Trump or a third party candidate because the GOP nominee “tends to flip-flop a little too much.” His style and temperament doesn’t bother her, though. “At least I feel like he tells you how it is. You don’t have to like it, but he tells you how it is.”

There seemed to be few truly undecided voters at Trump’s event. One, who declined to give his name because he had been invited by a friend who he said is working for the campaign, said he’d wait for the debate. He voted for John Kasich in the primary and plans to support Democrat Maggie Hassan for the U.S. Senate, but hasn’t yet made up his mind about the top of the ticket. “I’d like a better vote,” he said.  

Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report. 

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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