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Republicans fret over Trump's self-inflicted blows at first debate

Republicans say President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE missed a golden opportunity to change the course of the presidential election at this week’s debate, heightening pressure on the incumbent to radically alter his strategy and style in the final stretch to appeal to the independents and women he'll need to win over if he hopes to secure a second term.

They say the game-changing moments were there for the taking but Trump's aggressive posturing got the best of him. The debate effectively collapsed around Trump’s cross-talk, which was a huge turnoff to many viewers at a time when the president is desperately trying to make up ground in key battleground states.

That’s deeply frustrating for Republicans, who believe Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline Overnight Defense: Trump campaign's use of military helicopter raises ethics concerns | Air Force jets intercept aircraft over Trump rally | Senators introduce bill to expand visa screenings MORE would have looked rambling and been prone to more mistakes if Trump would only have allowed him to carry on.

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Instead, with only 34 days to go before the election, the president is dealing with yet another racial controversy over his refusal to condemn white supremacists on the biggest stage imaginable.

The president will campaign in Minnesota on Wednesday night as he seeks to rebound. The North Star State is one of a handful carried by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Trump fights for battleground Arizona Biden leads Trump by 12 in new national poll MORE in 2016 that the Trump campaign hopes to flip in 2020.

But Minnesota Republicans say the president’s best opportunity to keep the pressure on Biden in the traditionally blue state may have slipped through his fingers amid the shouting and name-calling at Tuesday night’s debate.

“Biden, especially in the first half of the debate, looked weak and it seemed that all the things Democrats worried about might come true,” said Amy Koch, a Republican and the former majority leader in the Minnesota state Senate. “But then Trump just overwhelmed and it was too much. It was over the top and rude and it felt desperate and bullying. He blew it. He did nothing to improve his standing with independents, women or suburban voters. In fact, he may have gone backwards with disaffected Republicans. He needed a strong performance and the opportunity was there and it was all lined up for him to knock it out of the park and he just whiffed.”

Now Trump is dealing with a crisis of his own making after he dodged when moderator Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceTrump calls Fox 'disappointing' for airing Obama speech Fox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Republican National Committee chair warns of 'most progressive, radical takeover of our country' if Biden wins MORE asked him to reject white supremacist violence.

Trump initially said he’d be happy to, but Biden tossed out the name of a group for Trump to denounce — the Proud Boys — and the president switched gears, telling the group to “stand back and stand by.”

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“There were a number of missed opportunities for President Trump but especially when you talk about condemning white supremacy, that’s a slam dunk,” said Gianno Caldwell, a Black conservative political analyst and author of “Taken for Granted.” “He’s done it before. He designated the KKK as a terrorist group. He released his platinum plan for African Americans, the First Step Act, the opportunity zones. He didn’t mention any of that. ... I’ve been of the mind Trump would win no matter what he says or does, and that could still happen. But there are a lot of folks who support him that are not feeling very good right now. I think he’s put himself in a real tough spot.”

Republican lawmakers fumed over Trump’s inability to properly answer a question about white supremacy. The White House and Trump campaign were instantly on defense trying to explain the remarks away.

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottFrom HBCUs to Capitol Hill: How Congress can play an important role Democrats unveil bill to reduce police violence against people with mental illness Liberals should embrace Trump's Supreme Court nominee MORE (R-S.C.), the lone Black Republican in the Senate, said Trump should “correct” his debate comments. Allies on Fox News Channel, such as Brian Kilmeade, scratched their heads over how Trump could miss a “layup.”

By Wednesday afternoon, Trump had adjusted his rhetoric, telling reporters at the White House that he doesn't know about the Proud Boys but that they should "stand down" and "let law enforcement do their work." 

Tuesday’s 90-minute debate began with an exchange on the Supreme Court and quickly evolved into a chaotic performance that saw Trump repeatedly interrupting Wallace and Biden as both candidates flung insults at one another.

Trump attacked Biden on multiple fronts, bringing up his son Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings and questioning the former vice president’s intelligence. Biden dismissed Trump as a “clown” and a “liar” and told him to “shut up.”

Republicans say that the incumbent president’s strategy appeared aimed at coaxing out a gaffe from Biden that would support the Trump campaign’s argument that the former vice president is not mentally fit for the Oval Office. 

“I think he recognizes that he is behind. He badly needed to knock Biden off his feet. He needed Biden to make a really bad gaffe that would be what everyone was talking about today, and that didn’t happen,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant.

Bryan Lanza, a former Trump campaign official, argued that Trump was the “dominant force” of the debate and that it benefited him. But he said that Trump is better served by having a substantive policy debate with Biden and drawing a contrast with the Democratic nominee on issues like the Supreme Court, energy and environmental policy and the economy.

The former campaign official argued that Trump should have spent ample time pressing Biden on the early debate question of packing the Supreme Court by pointing out Biden’s refusal to answer whether he supports the controversial idea.

“Yesterday was Saturday game day. You had those cheering for their college football team and watching the wreckage take place on the field,” Lanza said. “The only people who enjoyed last night were political fans.”

Others saw the initial exchange on the Supreme Court as a strong point for Trump that quickly gave way to a messy contest driven largely by Trump’s lack of discipline.

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“I thought Trump was very strong in the first exchange but the debate quickly became unwatchable from there,” said one former White House official. “I don’t see how he helped his case among women or college-educated voters who are put off by his style. If anything, he pushed those voters further out of reach. If I am trying to hang on in a swing suburban district, I’m even more worried about my prospects.”

GOP strategists say Trump’s advisers need to instill in him the idea that debates are different from press conferences or rallies, where the president is energized by opportunities to eviscerate his rivals.

“Everyone knows that Trump is a counterpuncher. What he needs to do there is go out and be something voters think that he’s not. Presidential and a commander in chief,” said GOP strategist Colin Reed. “He needs to approach it as something different than his daily press conference or rally.”

Republicans say there’s still time for Trump to turn it around with two debates remaining. They expect the president will keep a heavier campaign schedule than Biden down the stretch and additional unpredictable developments could still turn the tide.

“You don’t have to change everything about his strategy or style, there’s an authenticity there he can hold on to,” said Koch. “But he needs to be prepared and to talk about substantive things and have his facts in order and appear presidential. Two more debates. Five more weeks. He can turn it around. The ingredients and ability are there but it’s on him to do it.”

Updated: 3:34 p.m.