Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will take the stage for their second debate Sunday evening amid an extraordinary political atmosphere.
Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has faced calls from prominent members of his own party to drop his White House bid, after a recording emerged on Friday of him using vulgar and aggressive language about women in 2005.
It is an unprecedented situation for the nominee of a major party.
Trump has been adamant about not leaving the race, telling The New York Times that he would not do so “in a million years” and insisting he can still win the presidency.
But neither those words, nor the video statement Trump released around midnight Friday, have quelled the sense of crisis that has enveloped his party. Whether he can do anything on the debate stage on Sunday to break the fever remains to be seen.
"I don’t see how he can do any kind of political repair," said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga. "For the good of America, [Clinton] just needs to speak up for all the people in this country who would never approve of this behavior."
By Saturday afternoon, several Republican senators had called for Trump to drop out of the race, including the party’s third-ranking member in the upper chamber, Sen. John Thune (S.D.). And other Republican lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah), withdrew their support of the nominee.
Trump’s own running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, has said he was “offended” by the nominee’s words and decided not to appear at a GOP fundraiser Saturday alongside Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in Trump’s stead.
The situation Trump finds himself in is so grave that it is not immediately clear what would constitute success for him in the debate, which takes place at Washington University in St. Louis Sunday night.
The bombshell tape is sure to come up. In it, Trump spoke in crude terms about his pursuit of an unnamed woman and claimed that his celebrity status enabled him to “do anything” to women, including “grab them by the p---y.”
Trump’s wife, Melania Trump, released a statement on Saturday afternoon calling her husband’s words “unacceptable and offensive to me” but also asserted that it did not “represent the man I know.”
Pence, for his part, has suggested that the debate presents Trump with an opportunity to “show what is in his heart.”
But the prospect that voters will see contrition from Trump on Sunday evening is far from guaranteed.
His late-night video apology included a jab at former President Bill Clinton for his treatment of women and the accusation that “Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims.”
Trump managed to largely steer clear of diving into that line of attack when faced with sexism accusations at the first debate, but he may choose to go on the offensive this time around. Some fellow Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), have publicly cast doubt on the likely effectiveness of such a tactic.
Sunday’s debate is the only one of the three clashes that will be held in a town hall setting, where the candidates will field questions from audience members. The dynamics of such debates are challenging even under normal circumstances.
For Trump, the dangers seem plain.
If audience members blanch at raising the most shocking elements of the recording on Sunday, the co-moderators, Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC News, may be quick to bring up the issue themselves.
And Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, who initially called Trump’s comments “horrific” in a Friday tweet but then fell silent on the issue, will surely use the controversy for all it's worth to attack him, with or without help from the moderators.
The scandal — the most grave of Trump’s furor-filled run for the presidency — comes with only a little more than four weeks to go until Election Day and early voting underway in some states. It is also the nadir of a bleak period for the Republican nominee that began with his performance in his first debate against Clinton on Sept. 26.
He was widely perceived to have lost that encounter. Since then he has extended a feud with a former Miss Universe, been hit with a New York Times exposé on his tax returns, seen his poll ratings dip and become enmeshed in several other disputes.
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