Donald Trump weathered a “shocking” first 30 minutes in Sunday’s town hall presidential debate, which was characterized by nasty and deeply personal exchanges between the two candidates.
Hillary Clinton laid out the case that her opponent is unfit for the presidency, while Trump threatened to “jail” Clinton if elected. The Republican nominee also went after former President Bill Clinton highlighting women who have accused him of harassment or assault.
Trump came into the town hall debate following a torrid weekend that saw the release of a 2005 video where he can be heard telling TV host Billy Bush that he was free to grope women with impunity because he was a TV “star.” Trump apologized for his remarks in an earlier video statement. And at the top of Sunday’s debate, Trump acknowledged regret over the comments, but repeatedly dismissed them as “locker room talk.”
After the story broke, a cascade of Republican officeholders pulled their support from Trump, and many rank-and-file GOPers called on him to step aside as the nominee.
With that backdrop, the opening exchanges of Sunday’s debate couldn’t have gone worse for Trump as many GOP consultants watched in horror as their party’s presidential nominee stumbled through questions about his 2005 comments.
Former Jeb Bush consultant Mike Murphy summed it up with a single word. “M-E-L-T-D-O-W-N,” he tweeted. Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele followed that up with a picture of a mushroom cloud.
“The first 30 minutes was simply shocking,” Ashley O'Connor, a former Mitt Romney media strategist and managing partner at Strategic Partners & Media, told C&E.
“But as the debate shifted, [Clinton] didn't have much punch or counter punch in her. Trump was already setting up his spin and will be blaming the moderators, which will play well with his base.”
Still, O'Connor called Trump’s body language on stage — which immediately spawned a host of digital memes — and his pacing behind Clinton “odd” behavior.
“Sort of liked a caged animal,” she said. “HRC, on the other hand, engaged the folks from the audience when she could, and remained calm for the most part. But I don't think it will factor into deciding who won the debate.”
Some GOP strategists actually sounded a bit relieved by Trump’s performance Sunday.
Scott Jennings, a former advisor to President George W. Bush and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, tweeted during the broadcast: “Trump better debater this time. Won several rounds so far. Bit on jailing his opponent going to dominate coverage. But he's better tonight.”
GOP media consultant Ron Bonjean agreed, tweeting: “With nothing to lose, Trump is winning this debate. His aggressive performance has thrown Clinton off her game.”
And despite rumors of high-profile defections from his campaign, Trump’s organization has stayed intact through the weekend crisis.
Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said she had “obviously” been in debate preparation with her candidate through the weekend media storm. But added that she could quit the campaign under certain circumstances.
“I’m with the campaign until the bitter end — unless,” she said to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. “Unless what?” Matthews asked. “I’m sitting here as his campaign manager,” Conway responded.
Asked a follow-up question later about what the “unless” meant, Conway said: “Unless someone in my household needs me, or unless something changes in my own life.”
Carrie Giddins Pergram, a Democratic communications consultant, said she didn’t buy the criticism that Clinton wasn’t aggressive enough on Sunday.
“There is no reason for her to appear combative and meet Trump where he is,” she said. “His coming off as angry and aggressive works for him, or so he believes, or that is who he is. That is not who Clinton is and it wouldn't fit her.”
Clinton spent their first debate baiting Trump, but appeared to try to ignore him Sunday to focus on the audience in the room and at home. That was the right move, said Giddins Pergram.
“Tonight we saw Clinton on point with her answers about the Supreme Court, energy, foreign policy, anything she was asked,” she said. “Trump was rambling and incoherent on topics where a president must be cogent.”
The final presidential debate is set for Oct. 19 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.