Trump must avoid death by a thousand self-inflicted cuts to prevail
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Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown Laura Ingraham 'not saying' if she'd support Trump in 2024 The Hill's 12:30 Report: Djokovic may not compete in French Open over vaccine requirement MORE has spent 70 colorful years selling himself and building a brand, and all of it is on the line as we head into the final stretch to Election Day.

Sunday night, my wife and I slid out of D.C. and watched the St. Louis debate on a laptop, with red wine at the ready and a deep unease in our soul. It has been a particularly stressful year for Republicans, and the homey comfort of a local bunker or catacomb seemed appropriate.


It had been a jarring weekend, with the well-orchestrated tape release featuring Trump and Billy Bush’s offensive vulgarisms in 2005. How could one defend these comments? We realized you could not and we would not. We were reminded once again that Clinton Incorporated knows how to play the game of politics masterfully. I respect their knowledge of their craft as much as I despise their callow ruthlessness.

After three debates — two presidential and one VP — two conventions, running mate selections and a revolving door of three Trump campaign chairmen, it all comes down to the final four weeks. No one has ever seen anything like this race. From the descent at Trump Tower for his announcement to the stumbling and staggering of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket A year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low MORE into her security van, voters have seen and heard things they never thought they would.

Clinton has been involved in the profession of politics her entire adult life. She loves consuming policy papers and mingling with donors. I am told the former secretary of State can be quite charming, and she seems to have a dogged determination to be president no matter what obstacle is put in her path. She also seems to have accepted the fact that she is not loved, and has settled for being seen as sturdy and well-briefed.

Trump loves to talk politics but has been an outsider to the game. We’ve all followed his ups and downs, both financial and personal. We heard him be bawdy on Howard Stern and in the New York tabloids, and we saw him come back from each challenge as a uniquely interesting American success story.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have lived big, colorful lives, saturated in wealth and prestige and power. But in less than a month, one will be our next president and one will be … a choker. For each, the idea of losing to the other must be as unbearable as it is to the supporters on both sides.

As Mercy and I huddled around the laptop Sunday our mood lifted. Trump dominated the debate and he made the case for the policies we care about in a way that demonstrated a deeper understanding. Furthermore, he listened better and never stopped putting Clinton on the defensive. Each question and answer from the town hall has been analyzed and all the commentary has been digested. But all that matters now is that Trump performed well enough to put him back in the race.

After 90 minutes on the stage, Trump convinced Republicans that he had no intention of getting pushed out of the race, and that he could actually face down Hillary Clinton — and get the better of her. He inspired his core supporters and gave hope to Republicans and independents, even if D.C. Republicans long ago were indifferent to his act. Trump’s taped comments from 2005 are a now a part of this race, but his debate performance is now a bigger story. 

Each time Trump has pulled even with Clinton, or after a big event, he has managed to lose the following week by straying woefully off message. We have seen this after the conventions and after the first debate. If he is to win, he has to win this week, but he has to stay on the same themes from St. Louis. If he tumbles out of St. Louis and dives into extraneous controversies, the calendar will cruelly turn time into his biggest enemy.

If Trump stays on his St. Louis roll this week we will see a tightening of the race. As it always has been, Donald Trump’s success is largely up to his execution. The electorate has already mostly decided that Hillary Clinton represents the past, a broken Washington and a very liberal Obama agenda — it needs to see Trump as a responsible alternative.

We have not seen such a stretch of years of American voters believing the country is headed in the wrong direction. In fact, it is often the case that Americans believe this country’s best days have already passed. 

Voters are therefore more uneasy than perhaps ever before.

During this race, the campaigns have thrown more than a few curveballs. In the final stretch, do not be surprised if the voters decide to do the same.

Matt Schlapp is chairman of the American Conservative Union and CPAC. He was the White House political director to President George W. Bush.

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.