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Trump exceeds low expectations in debate as Clinton plays it safe

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/John Locher)

After a tumultuous few days, presidential nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced off in their second debate Sunday with Trump desperate to pull his campaign out of a possible freefall and Clinton aiming to maintain her lead in the polls.

In the spin room at Washington University in St. Louis after the debate, campaign surrogates and staffers for both candidates struggled to convince reporters that they achieved their goals and their opponent utterly failed.

It will be a few days before there is enough polling data to determine who is right. CNN’s first post-debate poll found a majority of respondents felt Clinton won, although by not as great of a margin as the first debate.

Trump did not need a victory, though. With dozens of Republican leaders denouncing him in the 48 hours before the debate and several declaring that they can no longer vote for him, his priority was halting the emergency evacuation of the Trump Train.

His surrogates are confident that he did so.

“I would say Donald Trump had a knockout tonight,” said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. “This is one of the stronger performances I’ve seen in any presidential debate, and the moderators were entirely unfair.”

“I thought frankly he dominated Hillary throughout the evening,” said Nigel Farage, one of the leaders of the Brexit movement in Britain.

Trump economic adviser Peter Navarro called his performance a “home run.”

“He was on point on the two key issues of this campaign, the economy and jobs,” he said.

Aaron Kall, director debate at the University of Michigan, said Trump benefited from extremely low expectations after his poor performance in the first debate, but he did manage to exceed them.

“The dam of his campaign was about to burst and I think that he shored that up,” Kall said.

In the spin room, the Clinton campaign emphasized the disarray in the Republican Party that Trump’s behavior has created. They argued that he did not do enough to reverse that course.

“I think that it will only probably hasten the race to the exits that we’ve seen from Republicans in the last 48 hours that have been abandoning his campaign in scores,” said spokesman Brian Fallon. “There’s nothing that he said or did tonight that stabilized his campaign.”

“Hillary Clinton tonight proved once again why she is the candidate who will win over the hearts and minds of the American people,” said Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile.

“On issue after issue, she had complete answers and Donald Trump had diversions.”

With a lead in the polls, an advantage in fundraising, and many in Trump’s own party abandoning him, Kall said Clinton might have been satisfied playing defense instead of going on offense.

“There’s kind of a fine line and delicate balance,” he said. “You don’t want to play it too safe, go into that preventive strategy too early because there’s always the chance of a comeback.”

To mount a comeback, Trump must overcome the controversy created by his comments in a 2005 recording that surfaced Friday, in which he claimed he kissed women and grabbed their genitals without their permission. Moderator Anderson Cooper pointed out that is sexual assault.

After denying that he ever did the things he discussed, Trump turned to blasting Hillary Clinton over allegations that her husband raped and assaulted women. He even brought those women with him to the debate.

The Trump campaign believes his dismissal of his bragging about sexual assault as “locker room talk” while attacking Clinton’s husband put the issue to rest.

“It was real alpha male boasting,” Farage said of the 2005 tape. “It’s the sort of thing that does go on. Doesn’t mean it’s right because it isn’t.”

“He admitted he was wrong, he asked for forgiveness from the American people,” said Trump senior adviser Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who argued there is nothing more he can do than that.

Democrats say Trump showed no remorse for his words on the debate stage and he tried to distract voters with unproven sexual allegations against the Clintons.

“Donald Trump engages in antics and sideshows,” said Clinton chief strategist Joel Benenson.

Clinton signaled her strategy early in the debate, brushing off Trump’s claims that her husband is a rapist with a reference to Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech, “When they go low, we go high.”

“She was determined and resolved not to let this town hall forum get bogged down in responding and fact-checking him, because when you have an audience this large, it would be a wasted opportunity to not make the affirmative case,” Fallon said.

Kall noted that none of Trump’s primary opponents were successful when they stooped to Trump’s level and traded insults with him at debates, so showing restraint may have been the right move in the long run.

“Did Trump have his own vulnerabilities that she could have brought up?” he said. “Yes, but I think then a race to the bottom like that is not a place that you want to be with Trump because he has more experience down there.”

Both sides saw Trump’s bizarre pre-debate Facebook Live event with Bill Clinton’s accusers as an act of psychological warfare to intimidate Hillary Clinton. The Washington Post reported that Trump’s campaign intended to put the women in the VIP box with his family during the debate, but the Commission on Presidential Debates objected.

Unsurprisingly, the campaigns had different opinions on whether the move was effective.

“Hilary Clinton doesn’t get rattled by Donald Trump,” Benenson said. “I think Donald Trump gets rattled by Hillary Clinton because he doesn’t know how to deal with someone who’s as strong and tough as she is.”

“I think it was a stunt,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO). “I think it was desperate. I think it shows that there was no contrition on the part of Donald Trump.”

McCaskill also called Trump “scary unfit” for the presidency.

“To the extent that Donald Trump was trying to throw Hillary Clinton off her game tonight and try to sidetrack her or create distractions in order to defuse the simmering controversy that has erupted over his comments from Friday, I think that backfired on him,” Fallon said.

“Donald Trump is hemorrhaging support with female voters at a historic clip, and I think tonight’s debate will only exacerbate his problems there,” Fallon said.

The Trump campaign maintained that he was giving a voice to victims who have been ignored for too long.

“Even Hillary Clinton herself has repeatedly said that women that have been attacked or sexually abused should have their voice heard, and Donald Trump gave them that microphone that the Clintons have denied them for years and years tonight,” Huckabee Sanders said.

According to Navarro, the women’s presence illustrated “the contrast between Mr. Trump’s unfortunate use of words versus Bill Clinton’s totally unfortunate attacks on a series of women and Hillary’s basically enabling that through her own behavior of cover-ups.”

Trump provided no evidence in the debate to show that Hillary Clinton enabled and covered up the alleged sexual assaults and harassment.

Experts said beforehand that one of the significant challenges of the town hall debate format is controlling body language while your opponent is talking. Trump failed at that.

He rarely sat down, pacing or leaning on his chair while Clinton spoke, and at times he lurked behind her. For a man under fire for boasting about predatory behavior, Kall said stalking Clinton around the stage was a mistake.

“When you combine that with the comments from 2005, that not the image that you want to portray,” he said.

He compared it to Al Gore invading George W. Bush’s personal space during the 2000 town hall debate, but Bush’s reaction is what made that moment memorable. Clinton did not acknowledge Trump hovering over her.

“It could have been more damaging to him if it was addressed in the debate,” Kall said.

Trump’s behavior was noticed on social media, with many reposting photos and memes mocking him. If the media latches onto it, it could still be damaging, but Kall said this was another example of Clinton taking the safe route.

Trump’s more aggressive approach, at one point threatening to have a special prosecutor investigate Clinton’s email use as secretary of state and put her in jail, carries risks of its own. According to Clinton aides, it did little to assuage voters’ persistent concerns about his temperament and his ability to handle the pressure of the presidency.

“He can run his campaign however he wants in the remaining 29 days,” Fallon said. “I think if he continues what we saw tonight, it only makes our argument for us about his lack of temperament and the fact that he is not fit to be commander-in-chief.”

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