ST. LOUIS — Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger welcomes baby boy Tennessee lawmaker presents self-defense bill in 'honor' of Kyle Rittenhouse Five things to know about the New York AG's pursuit of Trump MORE saved his campaign from meltdown Sunday evening with a debate performance that was, at the least, a marked improvement on his showing in his first clash with Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe dangerous erosion of Democratic Party foundations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket MORE almost two weeks ago.
But whether the Republican presidential nominee changed any minds is much more open to question. The debate was both nasty and personal, especially in its early stages, potentially turning off more voters from both candidates than it won over for either.
The clash also took place against a backdrop of a Trump campaign in dire straits, as the reverberations from a 2005 video in which the nominee spoke in lurid and aggressive terms about women continue to be felt.
Numerous Republican lawmakers have called for Trump to step aside as the party’s nominee — something which he is adamant he will not do. Even Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePences' pet rabbit, Marlon Bundo, dies Pence says both Capitol riot and nixing filibuster are a 'power grab' McCarthy says he won't cooperate with 'illegitimate' Jan. 6 probe MORE, said he was “offended” by the video, and virtually everyone, regardless of political affiliation, expects to see a sharp erosion of support for Trump in the next round of opinion polls.
There had even been rumors that Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, would quit, but she sought to quash that idea as she made her way through a jam-packed spin room after the debate ended here. Asked whether she was staying with the campaign, a smiling Conway said, “Yes. I’m here.” She seemed bullish about her candidate’s performance, as did a number of his surrogates.
The Trump video dominated the early stages of the debate. Co-moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN accused Trump of bragging about sexually assaulting women, which Trump argued was a mischaracterization.
The GOP nominee expressed regret for his remarks yet asserted that they amounted to nothing more than “locker room talk.” He then pivoted to the conduct of former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTo boost economy and midterm outlook, Democrats must pass clean energy bill Could the coming 'red wave' election become a 'red tsunami'? Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket MORE, alleging that “there has never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation who has been so abusive to women” and contending that Hillary Clinton “attacked those same women.”
Several of the woman appeared with Trump in a Facebook Live event here shortly before the debate began. Three of the women say they were victims of predatory behavior by Bill Clinton — Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey. A fourth woman who took part, Kathy Shelton, accused a man of raping her when she was 12; Hillary Clinton, then a lawyer, defended the man.
The women later sat in the auditorium during the debate, at the invitation of the Trump campaign. It was not clear whether there were any interactions between the women and the former president.
The mere fact that Trump brought up the subject of the former president’s sexual conduct is sure to command a considerable amount of post-debate attention. It could help muddy the waters of the criticism Trump has faced; it could equally be seen as undignified or irrelevant by many voters.
Trump was aggressive throughout the debate. He interrupted repeatedly, often with sarcastic comments aimed at either Clinton or the co-moderators, Cooper and Martha Raddatz of ABC News. He also sometimes stood directly behind his Democratic rival, creating an unusual TV image that drew mostly adverse comment on social media.
But Trump did have some striking moments. Prime among them was an exchange over Trump’s promise to seek a special prosecutor, if he were elected, to probe Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State. Clinton said such a proposal proved it was a good thing he would never have such authority.
“Because you’d be in jail,” Trump shot back.
Republican consultant Frank Luntz said on Twitter that this registered as the GOP nominee’s “highest moment” of the debate in a focus group.
The same aggressive tone could also cost Trump with some voters, however, especially the women whom he needs to bring over to his side if he is to have any real chance of prevailing on Nov. 8. Some Clinton supporters suggested he had tried, unsuccessfully, to intimidate the former secretary of State.
The debate was also dominated more by personal exchanges than by substantive policy discussion. Trump sometimes appeared unsteady when probed for specifics, especially in exchanges with Raddatz over Syria and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Clinton, on the other hand, was prepared when Trump jabbed at her for not achieving much during her three decades in public life, as he had during the first debate. She ticked off a list of her accomplishments.
A sliver of positivity entered the debate in its closing moments, after the candidates were invited to find something they admired about each other. Clinton praised Trump’s children; he paid tributes to her perseverance and willingness to fight hard.
Trump proved his own fighting instincts here tonight. He went a measure of the way to calming the panic that had threatened to capsize his candidacy. He also stilled the talk that he might be forced out of the race.
But, for all that, Clinton leaves St. Louis as she arrived: the clear favorite to win the White House a month from now.