Donald Trump may not have inflicted any further damage on his badly listing presidential candidacy on Sunday night, but it’s unlikely he expanded his base as the 2016 races into its final days.
In a surreal, often angry, 90-minute debate performance on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., Trump kneecapped running-mate Mike Pence, stepped up his personal attacks on Bill Clinton and threatened to jail Hillary Clinton if he’s elected in November.
The second meeting between Trump and Clinton was critical for the New York businessman, who spent last weekend watching as Republican politicians from across the spectrum deserted his candidacy in the wake of the release of a 2005 video in which he spoke of kissing and groping women.
Ahead in the polls nationwide and in most of the key battleground states, Clinton often struck an incumbent’s tone. She repeated First Lady Michelle Obama’s mantra that ‘When they go low, we go high.”
But that often seemed more a Platonic ideal than a matter of actual practice.
By turns petulant and angry, a clearly wounded Trump stalked the stage, again sniffling, jabbing and looming over Clinton, whom he tried to paint as an ineffective insider who’d spent years in Washington, but had not left a significant imprint.
In the debate’s opening 20 minutes, Trump called Clinton “the devil,” even as she accused him of “living in an alternate reality.”
In remarks sure to find their way into an attack advertisement, Trump again stunningly dismissed his crude remarks about a soap opera actress a decade ago as “locker room talk.”
“This was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it. I apologized to my family. I apologized to America. This was locker room talk,” Trump told co-moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN. Further straining credulity, he added,”I have great respect for women, no one has more respect for women than I do.”
Clinton wasted little time demolishing that one.
“I think it’s clear to anyone who’s seen it [the video], it’s exactly who he is,” she said.
In an exchange over Clinton’s use of a private email sever while secretary of state, Trump said he’d instruct his eventual attorney general to “appoint a special prosecutor” to investigate her.
Clinton, who again acknowledged she was wrong to use the server, shot back: “It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.”
“Because you’d be in jail,” Trump muttered.
The night’s aggressive tone was set before the two candidates even took the stage.
About an hour-and-a-half before the town hall was set to begin, Trump held a news conference with four women who claimed they’d been mistreated by either Hillary or Bill Clinton.
It was about as cynical an attempt to change the subject as voters were bound to get. Before he discovered their utility as political props, Trumponce dismissed one of the women at the press conference, Paula Jones, as a “loser.”
Trump also denied that he’d urged voters to check out a ‘sex tape’ of Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe, whom he’d spent a week lacerating on Twitter after Clinton mentioned her in the candidates’ first debate last month.
“It wasn’t ‘check out a sex tape,’” said Trump, who tweeted this on Sept 30:
“Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a citizen so she could use her in the debate?”
When they finally got around to discussing the issues and remembered that there was an audience of undecided voters seated behind them, Clinton and Trump disagreed on... well ... everything.
It was in a back-and-forth over Syria that Trump threw Pence, who’s been defending him on the stump, under the bus.
When co-moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC-News told Trump that Pence had said during last week’s vide presidential debate that “provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength,” and that the United States should not rule out airstrikes against “military targets of the Assad regime,” Trump said he disagreed.
“Okay. He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree. I disagree. I think you have to knock out ISIS,” he said.
The bruising debate, which seemed, at times, far longer than its allotted time, ended on something like a conciliatory note.
Asked by a questioner to name one thing about the other, Clinton credited Trump for his children, saying it was a sign he was a good father. Trump called Clinton a “fighter.”
Those are skills both will need when they meet in the third and final debate on Oct. 19, in Las Vegas.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org