Donald Trump arrives on a debate stage Sunday evening in St. Louis with his presidential campaign in crisis and his party in open rebellion against him, giving him perhaps a last shot to fight for his political survival amid a growing clamor among Republicans that he quit the race.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Trump or the party after the release of a video in which he talks about women in vulgar and degrading terms. That triggered a rush of Republican officeholders to distance themselves from him or call for his exit from the race for the White House.
The debate at Washington University, which starts at 9 p.m. Eastern time, has some party leaders worried Trump will make matters worse by attacking Democrat Hillary Clinton through the infidelities of her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Even if Trump offers contrition, many political strategists have concluded he is too damaged to rebound.
“It’s over,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist and senior adviser to the party’s 2008 nominee, Senator John McCain. “This is not recoverable. This debate has every likelihood of being a fiasco.”
Schmidt predicted the crisis will prompt Trump to bring up the former president’s indiscretions, something the billionaire businessman had threatened to do after the first debate and then backed away from.
“It is a certainty that Trump will go down the only path that exists for him, which is try to frame this as a double-standard issue with regard to Bill Clinton,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt’s old boss, McCain, became the most prominent Republican yet to withdraw support for Trump over the weekend, saying in a statement Saturday that it had become “impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy.”
Fallout from the 2005 video, which played repeatedly on television all weekend, is likely to overshadow other topics at the debate. After the video’s release on Friday, CNN also uncovered audio of Trump talking with radio shock-jock Howard Stern in which the two men engaged in lewd conversations about women, including Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.
Trump’s skills as a showman likely won’t be enough to pull him from the muck he’s descended into after the recording showed him bragging in obscene terms that his celebrity status allowed him to grope women. The former reality television star vowed Saturday to remain in the race and party leaders appeared to have few options to remove him from the top of the ticket.
Clinton, the first female major party nominee, has held off addressing the controversy until the debate, when she can exploit its potency in front of a larger audience.
Given the weekend drama, viewership could approach the record political audience of more than 84 million for the first debate between Clinton and Trump on Sept. 26. This time, they’ll be competing against Hurricane Matthew coverage and a NFL game between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.
With less than a month before the election, the timing of the video’s release could hardly be worse for Trump and the Republican Party. Ballots are already being cast via early and absentee voting in some states. The impact threatens the party’s hold on the Senate and potentially the House.
Even before the latest Trump controversy, polls in recent days have shown Clinton widening her lead nationally and in some battleground states following their first debate.
Sunday’s debate will be a town hall-style event, with about half the questions coming from uncommitted voters screened by Gallup, and the rest posed by moderators Martha Raddatz, of ABC News, and Anderson Cooper, of CNN.
After being widely labeled as unprepared for the first debate, Trump practiced taking audience questions at campaign appearances last week, studied videos of the first debate and rehearsed new lines of attack.
Even before the video was made public, Trump had been struggling to recover from one of the worst stretches of his campaign following his shaky performance in the first debate, his comments disparaging a beauty pageant winner’s weight and personal life, and a New York Times report that he may not have paid any federal taxes for almost two decades following a nearly $1 billion business loss.
Alex Conant, the former communications director for Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, said Trump has moved into even deeper water.
“On the current trajectory, Donald Trump is going to lose this election,” he said. “Trump is losing because too many voters do not believe he has the temperament to be president. He failed to ease those fears in the first debate. In fact, he likely made it worse.”
The town-hall format, one that Clinton has considerably more experience with, will allow the candidates to sit or roam the stage instead of standing behind podiums.
Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, said the format has been used once in every presidential election since 1992 and it requires more stamina.
“That could be problematic for Trump,” he said. “He ran out of gas toward the end of the first debate, after standing behind a podium for 90 minutes without commercials and breaks.”
Taking questions from the public rather than moderators also demands that candidates show empathy and compassion, said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who worked for the presidential campaigns of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in 2004 and former Senator John Edwards in 2008.
“The format should avail itself for him to show the side that I think voters want to see,” Trippi said. “On the other hand, he’s shown no propensity at any point in this campaign to do that.”
Schmidt said he can’t imagine how Trump can win the election at this point.
“While you have two unpopular candidates for president, there’s only one fit candidate for the role of commander in chief,” he said. “Whatever her flaws may be, people will look at her and say that she possesses the requisite qualities of dignity to be a competent and psychological fitness to be the commander in chief.”
The third and final presidential debate will be held Oct. 19 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.