While the Trump Tape scandal may end up far less damaging to the Trump campaign than many pundits predicted, confirmed by several polls this morning which showed rank-and-file Trump supporters barely changed their opinion of the candidate in the aftermath of the hot mic recording leaked on Friday afternoon, he will have to pull off a strong debate performance while ignoring loud calls from both the press and top elected republicans to step aside, in order to offset a decline in polls has suffered since the first debate.
That may be easier said than done, especially since over the past 24 hours Trump has seen a barrage of attacks not only from the left but also from his own party, with dozens of GOP lawmakers calling for him to stand down. As Fox wrote earlier, Trump was already struggling through a tough couple of weeks, after the first debate with Clinton, in which she argued Trump was verbally abusive to a 1996 Miss Universe winner. Still, trying to appear unfazed, Trump struck a defiant tone on Sunday in the face of calls for him to abandon the U.S. presidential race, attacking prominent Republicans and saying he has "tremendous support."
As he so often has done in times of campaign stress, Trump took to social media to try to squelch any speculation that he could leave the race. "Tremendous support (except for some Republican leadership"). Thank you," Trump wrote on Twitter.
"So many self-righteous hypocrites. Watch their poll numbers - and elections - go down!" Trump tweeted, apparently referring to Republican lawmakers seeking re-election who have withdrawn their support for him over a 2005 video that emerged on Friday.
The negative speculation over the fate of Trump's campaign was the bulk of Saturday's news cycle, and continued on Sunday.
As Reuters writes, Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters on Clinton's campaign plane: “We understand that this is uncharted territory ... to face an opponent that is in the grips of a downward spiral in terms of his own party belatedly walking away from him.” A source close to the campaign of Trump's vice presidential running mate, Mike Pence, dismissed talk among some political analysts the Indiana governor might bolt the ticket in the uproar over Trump's comments. "Absolutely not," the source told Reuters.
Meanwhile, as noted above, with Republican Party leaders in crisis mode and doubts emerging over Trump's ability to draw support from crucial undecided voters, it appeared that many of Trump's core supporters would remain loyal despite the hot mic incident. A public opinion poll by POLITICO/Morning Consult, taken just after news broke of the video, found 39 percent of voters thought Trump should withdraw, and 45 percent said he should stay. Of those who said Trump should leave, only 12 percent identified themselves as Republicans.
Suggesting blowback may be in store for some Republicans who attacked Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan was heckled by Trump supporters at a rally in his congressional district in Wisconsin on Saturday, after having disinvited Trump following the release of the recording of Trump making lewd remarks. “You better back Trump!” they yelled. “You turned your back on him!” “Shame on you!”
But while there has been much verbal speculation about the future of the Trump campaign, now one month ahead of the election, in practice it would be virtually impossible to replace Trump. As we reported previously, in what have been largely symbolic moves, at least two Republican governors, 10 senators and 11 House of Representatives members withdrew their support of Trump, with some advising him to drop out of the race, including John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the Senate Republican leadership. But, as Reuters notes, any attempt to replace Trump on the ballot would face huge legal and logistical hurdles. The Trump campaign fought back, circulating "talking points" to a core of high-profile Republicans who promote Trump in the news media. The points sought to undermine establishment Republicans who have abandoned Trump.
“They are more concerned with their political future than they are about the future of the country,” said a copy of the talking points, described to Reuters by two sources close to the campaign.
It might work: as we noted previously, Trump has made his battle against the establishment a central campaign theme: what better way of underscoring that than by showcasing that not only do Democrats hate his brand, as of this moment a vast majority of Republicans do too.
"Phones have been blowing up for the past 24 hours," said a prominent Republican political operative in Washington, referring to a heavy volume of calls among party officials and Republican members of Congress.
There could be financial complications for Trump however. As we reported last night, Trump's troubles could steer campaign donations away from him and to Republican candidates for Congress and other down-ballot offices.
But money may be the least of Trump's worries if he is unable to keep his head in tonight's debate.
What should one expect?
According to one Reuters source, Trump could help himself if he himself quickly addressed the video and the Oct. 1 New York Times report that he took so substantial a tax deduction on a declared $916 million loss in 1995 that he could legally have avoided paying any federal income taxes for up to 18 years.
Altternatively, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Trump adviser, told Sunday talk shows that at the debate Trump might choose to go on the offensive against Clinton by bringing up past infidelities of her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Interviewed on NBC's "Meet the Press," Giuliani said both presidential contenders were flawed but that Trump feels he owes it to his supporters to stay in the race. Republicans have attacked Clinton, 68, over what they say is her role in trying to discredit women who accused her husband of sexual misconduct decades ago, and have wondered why Trump ignored to approach the topic during the first debate.
According to the WSJ, which writes that "Trump Signals Attack on Bill Clinton in Coming Days " a taste of what may be to come was unveiled on Saturday when Bill Clinton was midway through a remark about climate change Saturday when a heckler gave a taste of what he and his wife's presidential campaign might get from Republican Donald Trump in coming days. "Nobody can dispute the fact..." Mr. Clinton started to say at a rally in a union hall, "... that you're a rapist!" the protester shouted, finishing the sentence for the 42nd president.
Bill Clinton responds after heckler calls him a "rapist" during rally in Wisconsin pic.twitter.com/eTJxMeKqOK— NBC News (@NBCNews) October 9, 2016
Previewing a hard-line attack on Clintons' sexual past, Trump on Sunday morning tweeted an interview given by Juanita Broaddrick, who claimed Mr. Clinton sexually assaulted her in the late 1970s.... Ms. Broaddrick tearfully recounts the episode in the videotaped interview and said "I'm afraid of him."
As the WSJ adds, "Trump, facing fierce blowback for his lewd comments about women, is signaling that he will target Mr. Clinton's behavior as he tries to stabilize a campaign coping with its biggest crisis to date."
In weekend apologies for his remarks, the Republican nominee invoked Mr. Clinton repeatedly, saying he had "abused women" and talked about them in ways that were more offensive than his own in a 2005 video in which he boasted of sexual aggression.
He also claimed Mrs. Clinton attacked the women who accused her husband of sexual misconduct.
"I've said some foolish things, but there's a big difference between the words and actions of other people," Mr. Trump said in a Saturday morning video. "Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims. We will discuss this more in the coming days."
That line of attack threatens to yank Mr. Clinton directly into the campaign scrum, a space the former two-term president has largely avoided since his wife launched her campaign a year and half ago.
The WSJ notes that according to strategists in both parties, a tactic where Trump goes for Clinton's past infidelities may backfire.
Rudolph Giuliani, a Trump campaign surrogate, said Sunday on NBC that he didn't expect his candidate to raise Mr. Clinton's past during an evening presidential town hall meeting in St. Louis, Missouri.
Additionally, the WSJ notes that Bill Clinton remains a popular figure, outshining his wife and her Republican opponent.
A recent Wall Street Journal/ NBC News poll found that 45% of voters said they have very positive or somewhat positive feelings about the former president, compared with 38% who have very negative or somewhat negative feelings.
The same survey found that 37% of voters have positive feelings about Mrs. Clinton, while 52% have negative feelings. Meanwhile, just 28% of voters have very positive or somewhat positive feelings about Mr. Trump; 61% have very negative or somewhat negative feelings about him.
Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster, said Mr. Trump would be playing to his base of hard-core supporters by attacking Mr. Clinton, but he isn't winning over any new voters. "If he were running a Republican primary race, this could be an effective strategy," Mr. Newhouse said. Now, "it's a failed strategy to try to bring Bill Clinton to this." Lashing out at the former president and saying that he has done something worse is "like an argument that a third-grader might make," Mr. Newhouse said. " When you use an apology to turn around and attack your opponent, you lose ground," he said.
A democratic strategist, Joe Trippi, believes that "there's no way out for him other than to be humble and apologize", which on the other hand some say would show weakness and give Hillary the offensive. He also pointed out that Trump now needs to somehow win over women and college-educated white voters and that "taking aim at Mr. Clinton is only going to "repulse them further."
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While nobody has any idea what Trump's best angle of attack may be, or what the republican presidential contender will say in under three hours when the townhall-styled debate begins, it is certain that following a brief courteous open, the mudslinging on both sides will promptly escalate, resulting in one of the most memorable, "deplorable" yet entertaining slow-motion trainwrecks observed in primetime history. The biggest unknown, however, is how America will respond to it: and for Trump that particular gamble could mean the difference between victory and defeat.