Gabby Orr and Burgess Everett
“It was helpful for our Senate candidates and hopefully helpful for the president,” added Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri.
Whether Trump receives the eleventh-hour boost he desperately needs will depend on which version of the president voters see coming out of the final debate in the week that remains before the Nov. 3 election. As he returns to base-revving campaign events where unpredictability reigns, Republicans are worried Trump could quickly undo any gains he might have made here Thursday.
The president’s hourlong rallies have become ground zero for his worst impulses — from coarse language and meandering monologues to misleading claims about the Covid-19 pandemic — and often result in controversies that aides must spend days cleaning up. Recently, Trump has used the venues to push dubious and unconfirmed reports about Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, that have little resonance with pocketbook voters.
“The president’s job 10 days out is to convince voters that Joe Biden would decimate American industries, pack the courts and send small businesses back into coronavirus lockdowns,” said one adviser to the Trump campaign.
“He’s screwing himself with the Hunter Biden stuff and he needs to cut it out,” the person added.
Though there were plenty of moments Thursday night when Trump trained his focus on the Biden family’s business dealings, there were also times when he seized on policy differences between him and his Democratic opponent that Republicans have long encouraged him to amplify in his closing pitch to voters.
“He was obviously able to rein in his inner self that sometimes gets the better of him,” said West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican.
In one exchange during the final minutes of the debate, Trump latched on to Biden’s promise to transition the U.S. away from fossil fuels if he is elected president.
“That’s the biggest statement because basically what he’s saying is he’s going to destroy the oil industry,” Trump said directly into the cameras. “Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania?”
By the end of the night, some Trump aides and allies were grappling with simultaneous feelings of euphoria and frustration. Pleased with his decision to ditch the erratic behavior that caused Biden’s poll numbers to rise after the first presidential debate in September and focus on casting the former vice president as a creature of the political establishment, they griped that the past month of intense catch-up could have been avoided if Trump had turned out a similar performance last time around.
“Why didn’t he do this in the first debate?” wrote a second Trump campaign adviser in a text message at the end of the night.
Others offered a more optimistic takeaway, suggesting 11 days is ample time to change the dynamics of the 2020 race, despite Trump’s lagging poll numbers in pivotal battleground states and among demographic groups that were critical to his Electoral College victory four years ago.
“The momentum has been on our side and the president has kept it going,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said in a brief interview as she left the debate site at Belmont University. “The president knocked it out of the park and hit some key differences on policy issues that needed to be addressed.”
To some extent, the praise Trump earned from Republican allies was an implicit acknowledgment that the hot-tempered disposition he typically brings to his campaign rallies — and which millions of Americans saw at the first debate in Ohio — works against his reelection. But Trump will spend the remaining days of the race in just that environment, rallying with devoted MAGA fans across Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and New Hampshire.
Yet Thursday night’s performance had a soothing effect on the GOP: Vulnerable Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has not endorsed Trump, said Trump “did well” Thursday after criticizing both candidates’ performance last month.
However, at times during Thursday’s debate, Trump reverted to old habits that have previously rankled senators like Collins. During a segment focused on immigration, Trump said undocumented immigrants who show up for court hearings are those “with the lowest IQ.” Against the backdrop of a summer filled with race-related demonstrations and legislative measures to combat police brutality, Trump squandered an opportunity to speak directly to people of color in a calm and empathetic way — using the moment to instead compare himself to Abraham Lincoln, dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement and praise his own push for criminal justice reform, increased funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and so-called opportunity zones in economically distressed communities.
“As far as my relationship with all people … I am the least racist person in this room,” Trump said, trying to scan the crowd gathered in the darkened debate hall.
“I don’t know what to say,” he added. “I mean, they could say anything. It makes me sad. I am the least racist person.”
In another exchange, Trump demanded to know if Biden’s nickname was “the big man” in unverified emails that emerged last week allegedly documenting Hunter’s overseas business dealings.
“Don’t give me this stuff about how you’re this innocent baby. They are calling you a corrupt politician,” he said to Biden, giving viewers a taste of the vitriolic and conspiratorial attacks that have become staples of his rambunctious campaign rallies.
“Clearly they see an advantage of raising the issue of alleged corruption. It seems to be a feature of their campaign,” said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the intelligence chair, of Trump’s attacks on Hunter. “I think there are a lot of people interested in the topic, but obviously people who are not going to vote for the president aren’t.”
In the week leading up to Trump’s final appearance on the debate stage, the president flouted traditional preparation in favor of maintaining a rigorous campaign schedule. His laser-like focus on Biden’s son — on his Twitter feed, at campaign rallies and in a heated “60 Minutes” interview with Leslie Stahl — gave some Republicans pause, worried that he would bungle his last opportunity to reach undecided and skeptical Republican voters if he eschewed mentions of the economy and policy differences with Biden to focus squarely on Hunter Biden. Hours before the debate began, Trump’s campaign aides announced that Tony Bobulinski, an ex-business partner of Hunter Biden, would attend as a special guest of the president.
But if the president is taking notes from his own campaign, Republican allies who want him to focus on what they perceive as Biden’s more controversial positions — on issues like hydraulic fracking, oil dependency and coronavirus restrictions — may be sorely disappointed in the coming days. Between Thursday night and Friday morning, the Trump campaign and RNC sent out six emails mentioning Hunter Biden and calling attention to “explosive” new reports about his alleged interactions with foreign business firms.
“Joe Biden can no longer ignore this massive and growing scandal and the news media can no longer avoid asking him about it,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement Friday morning.