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Trump turns to debate to curb campaign meltdown

Trump turns to debate to curb campaign meltdown
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump to fundraise for 3 Republicans running for open seats: report Trump to nominate former Monsanto exec to top Interior position White House aides hadn’t heard of Trump's new tax cut: report MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley: Bolton tells Russians 2016 meddling had little effect | Facebook eyes major cyber firm | Saudi site gets hacked | Softbank in spotlight over Saudi money | YouTube fights EU 'meme ban' proposal Dems lower expectations for 'blue wave' Election Countdown: Takeaways from heated Florida governor's debate | DNC chief pushes back on 'blue wave' talk | Manchin faces progressive backlash | Trump heads to Houston rally | Obama in Las Vegas | Signs of huge midterm turnout MORE will take the stage for their second debate Sunday evening amid an extraordinary political atmosphere. 

Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has faced calls from prominent members of his own party to drop his White House bid, after a recording emerged on Friday of him using vulgar and aggressive language about women in 2005. 

It is an unprecedented situation for the nominee of a major party.

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Trump has been adamant about not leaving the race, telling The New York Times that he would not do so “in a million years” and insisting he can still win the presidency.

But neither those words, nor the video statement Trump released around midnight Friday, have quelled the sense of crisis that has enveloped his party. Whether he can do anything on the debate stage on Sunday to break the fever remains to be seen. 

"I don’t see how he can do any kind of political repair," said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga. "For the good of America, [Clinton] just needs to speak up for all the people in this country who would never approve of this behavior."

By Saturday afternoon, several Republican senators had called for Trump to drop out of the race, including the party’s third-ranking member in the upper chamber, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Through a national commitment to youth sports, we can break the obesity cycle Florida politics play into disaster relief debate MORE (S.D.). And other Republican lawmakers, including Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump: 'You know what I am? I'm a nationalist' Graham on Saudi Arabia: 'I feel completely betrayed' Meghan McCain calls Russian attacks against her father the 'highest compliment' to her family MORE (Ariz.) and Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzFox News contributor mocks Elizabeth Warren with photo at Disneyland Eric Trump blasts professor at alma mater Georgetown: ‘A terrible representative for our school’ Matt Schlapp: Trump's policies on Russia 'two or three times tougher than anything' under Obama MORE (Utah), withdrew their support of the nominee.

Trump’s own running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceIn midst of political violence, America greatly needs unity O'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Trump, Obama head to swing states with Senate majority in balance MORE, has said he was “offended” by the nominee’s words and decided not to appear at a GOP fundraiser Saturday alongside Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanElection Countdown: Takeaways from heated Florida governor's debate | DNC chief pushes back on 'blue wave' talk | Manchin faces progressive backlash | Trump heads to Houston rally | Obama in Las Vegas | Signs of huge midterm turnout Will the Federal Reserve make a mistake by shifting to inflation? Sanders: Democrats ‘absolutely’ have chance to win back rural America  MORE (R-Wis.) in Trump’s stead.

The situation Trump finds himself in is so grave that it is not immediately clear what would constitute success for him in the debate, which takes place at Washington University in St. Louis Sunday night.

The bombshell tape is sure to come up. In it, Trump spoke in crude terms about his pursuit of an unnamed woman and claimed that his celebrity status enabled him to “do anything” to women, including “grab them by the p---y.”

Trump’s wife, Melania Trump, released a statement on Saturday afternoon calling her husband’s words “unacceptable and offensive to me” but also asserted that it did not “represent the man I know.”

Pence, for his part, has suggested that the debate presents Trump with an opportunity to “show what is in his heart.” 

But the prospect that voters will see contrition from Trump on Sunday evening is far from guaranteed. 

His late-night video apology included a jab at former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonConservatives bankrolled and dominated Kavanaugh confirmation media campaign Sen. Walter Huddleston was a reminder that immigration used to be a bipartisan issue No, civility isn't optional MORE for his treatment of women and the accusation that “Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims.”

Trump managed to largely steer clear of diving into that line of attack when faced with sexism accusations at the first debate, but he may choose to go on the offensive this time around. Some fellow Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCongress raises pressure on Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia's myopia is the cause of the Khashoggi blunder Graham on Saudi Arabia: 'I feel completely betrayed' MORE (S.C.), have publicly cast doubt on the likely effectiveness of such a tactic. 

Sunday’s debate is the only one of the three clashes that will be held in a town hall setting, where the candidates will field questions from audience members. The dynamics of such debates are challenging even under normal circumstances.

For Trump, the dangers seem plain. 

If audience members blanch at raising the most shocking elements of the recording on Sunday, the co-moderators, Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC News, may be quick to bring up the issue themselves.

And Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, who initially called Trump’s comments “horrific” in a Friday tweet but then fell silent on the issue, will surely use the controversy for all it's worth to attack him, with or without help from the moderators. 

The scandal — the most grave of Trump’s furor-filled run for the presidency — comes with only a little more than four weeks to go until Election Day and early voting underway in some states. It is also the nadir of a bleak period for the Republican nominee that began with his performance in his first debate against Clinton on Sept. 26.

He was widely perceived to have lost that encounter. Since then he has extended a feud with a former Miss Universe, been hit with a New York Times exposé on his tax returns, seen his poll ratings dip and become enmeshed in several other disputes.

As of Saturday afternoon, Clinton held a lead of around 3 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average and was well placed in most battleground states. Virtually no one, in either party, denies that Clinton’s lead is likely to grow in the wake of the Trump recording. 

This leaves the former secretary of State in the curious position of being the undisputed front-runner, yet not the center of attention, on Sunday night. 

One thing to watch will be whether Clinton, an audience member or one of the moderators addresses the Trump tape first. The body language between the two will also be scrutinized — some liberal voices on social media have suggested that Clinton should decline to shake hands with Trump.

The Trump tape could have another beneficiary: TV broadcasters. 

Before the latest revelations, it had been assumed that the 84 million people who watched the first Trump-Clinton clash on TV would be the largest audience for any of the three debates.

Now, the audience that will tune in on Sunday evening might even surpass that figure. If it does, it will set a new all-time high for a presidential debate.