Trump facing must-win debate
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE needs a win at the second presidential debate on Sunday if he is to build on the momentum that his running mate, Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceSix notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Pence's 'body man' among aides who tested positive for coronavirus: report Biden: Meadows coronavirus remark a 'candid acknowledgement' of Trump strategy 'to wave the white flag' MORE, has created for him.

Pence, the governor of Indiana, is widely seen as having bested his Democratic counterpart, Virginia Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDemocratic Senate emerges as possible hurdle for progressives  Two Loeffler staffers test positive for COVID-19 Democrats have no case against Amy Coney Barrett — but that won't stop them MORE, at the sole vice presidential debate on Tuesday evening.

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In doing so, Pence turned the page on a dismal period for Trump — a stretch marked by an ineffective debate performance, a feud with a former Miss Universe, damaging tax revelations and a steady slide in opinion polls. 

At a rally in Henderson, Nev., on Wednesday, Trump praised Pence — and himself. Saying that Pence did “an incredible job,” Trump added, “I’m getting a lot of credit because that’s really my first so-called choice; that’s really my first hire, as we would say in Las Vegas.”

Pence’s apparent success on Tuesday seems unlikely to fundamentally change the shape of the race; vice presidential debates rarely do. But the stakes could hardly be higher as Trump prepares to face Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHarris lists out 'racist' actions by Trump in '60 minutes' interview: 'It all speaks for itself' Trump has list of top intelligence officials he'll fire if he wins reelection: report Clinton says most Republicans want to see Trump gone but can't say it publicly: report MORE in St. Louis on Oct. 9.  

“How many times have all the pundits been interviewed saying, ‘Trump is finally finished’?” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “That must have happened 10 times. The problem now is the clock is running down. We’ll be at four weeks, three weeks, two weeks. Can he pull the rabbit out of the hat one more time?” 

Before the first Trump-Clinton clash, the GOP nominee’s advisers let it be known that he was not engaging in prolonged, formal preparations. 

But with the second debate now of magnified importance, there are reports that the Trump team is taking a more focused approach. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, an early Trump supporter and skilled debater, is reportedly involved in the debate preparations. 

Some Republicans are skeptical about how much ground Trump can make up at this stage, however. 

“Now it’s up to him,” said GOP strategist and Hill contributor Matt Mackowiak. “It’s like coaching versus playing. Coaches can prepare you and they can have the right play calls. But at the end of the day, the player on the field has to go do it. So far, Trump has fallen short. He really needs to win decisively on Sunday.” 

Numerous recent polls have shown the scale of the challenge Trump faces. On Wednesday, a new poll from Monmouth University showed him trailing Clinton by 2 percentage points in Ohio, which has been one of the most favorable battleground states for the GOP nominee.

Another new survey, from WRAL-TV and Survey USA, showed Trump trailing in North Carolina, also by 2 points. And a national poll from Reuters/IPSOS gave Clinton a 6-point edge. 

The data forecasting site FiveThirtyEight gave Clinton a 76.2 percent chance of prevailing in its “poll-only” forecast as of Wednesday evening, her highest rating by that measure since late August. 

But the polls of the race have swung wildly before.

Clinton has twice led the RealClearPolitics national polling average by more than 6 points — in mid-June and early August — only to have Trump winnow those leads down to virtually nothing.

Some Clinton critics maintain that she could yet be pushed off track by an external event, such as an unforced error or damaging disclosures from an organization such as WikiLeaks, which published embarrassing emails between Democratic National Committee staffers as the party’s convention began this summer in Philadelphia.

A WikiLeaks news conference earlier this week failed to live up the hype that surrounded it, however, casting doubt on whether the organization can follow through on its threats.

Republicans also warn that Trump and his supporters can’t depend on a lucky break. The nominee himself, they say, needs to wrest back the initiative from Clinton.

“Hope is not a strategy,” said Mackowiak. “More of the same is not going to change the trajectory of the race. He needs to demonstrate at this next debate that he is prepared to be president — and that he can force Hillary Clinton back on defense.”

There is a recent precedent for a debate turnaround. 

In 2012, President Obama gave a lifeless performance at his opening clash with GOP nominee Mitt Romney and fell sharply in the polls afterward. But Vice President Biden acquitted himself well against Romney’s running mate, future Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcCarthy faces pushback from anxious Republicans over interview comments Pelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats MORE (Wis.), and Obama was much improved when he met Romney a second and third time.

Sunday’s debate will be in a town-hall format, but there is no consensus among insiders as to whether that helps or hinders Trump. 

Some backers suggest it will make it easier for Trump to feed off the energy of the crowd. Skeptics counter that televised town halls are technically challenging, in terms of tone and body language, and that a small, mostly quiet audience creates a very different atmosphere from the rambunctious rallies where Trump thrives.

But what if Trump surpasses expectations and reels in Clinton’s lead one more time?

“He would be the turnaround master of the decade if he pulls that off,” said Berkovitz.