Donald Trump aides and supporters on Tuesday defended his debate performance, arguing the GOP presidential nominee made a damaging case against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the first half-hour while beating expectations.
Trump backers generally stopped short of claiming an outright victory, however, and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill gave his first one-on-one debate performance dim reviews.
The behind-the-scenes takes from Trump backers and Republican lawmakers suggested many in the GOP do not believe their candidate scored much of a victory at Monday night’s encounter at Hofstra University.
Instead, they suggested the debate may not have moved the needle much in the presidential race, despite all the hype around it — and that Trump scored important points early in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio with his emphasis on the downside of free trade deals.
A Trump aide and two strategists who back the GOP nominee all independently highlighted the exchange on trade.
“He very effectively laid out an economic plan in contrast to 30 years of failure,” said Peter Navarro, a senior policy adviser to the nominee. “People who are voting on that issue will vote Trump. For the swing states, I think that was very critical.”
Greg Mueller, a GOP strategist, said he believed the opening half-hour of the debate, which included the exchanges on free trade, was “key for his electoral map strategy.”
Trump, he argued, was seeking to “bury Mrs. Clinton when it comes to trade deals that are sending jobs overseas. If he has a chance to pick up states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, even Florida, and some of those normally blue or purple states, that is going to be the issue — along with immigration — that he is going to do it on.”
Still, in claiming a good night for Trump, his backers were pushing against not only a media narrative but also a CNN-ORC poll that indicated 62 percent of debate-watchers thought Clinton had won the debate, versus only 27 percent who chose Trump as the victor.
Although the CNN sample skewed Democratic — 41 percent of respondents were Democrats, compared to 26 percent who were Republicans — it was also more scientific than a number of basic online surveys that gave a victory to Trump. Smaller focus groups commissioned by CNN and by CBS News also found audiences favoring Clinton.
Republicans in Congress gave Trump’s performance weaker reviews, with some saying he appeared unprepared.
“His performance was scattered. He didn’t drive home [questions about Clinton’s] honesty and missed great opportunities,” said one House Republican who publicly supports Trump.
Trump supporters’ defense of their candidate tended to be couched more in terms of “not that bad” rather than “great.”
“I’m not as bearish as a lot of other people, and the reason is that the candidates were being graded differently,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who supports Trump but is not affiliated with the campaign. “He had to be plausible, and I think he was. He certainly didn’t disqualify himself.”
But O’Connell also acknowledged that, after a strong opening, Trump’s performance became more problematic as the night wore on, particularly in terms of a tendency to go down “rabbit-holes” that contained little of interest to the average voter.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), in talking about Trump’s performance, said the GOP nominee had “met expectations” while making his unique case against the status quo.
O’Connell suggested that the nominee had not always found a way to effectively parry Clinton attacks that could have been anticipated in advance of the clash.
“The ‘birtherism’ and the taxes, in particular,” were shaky moments for Trump, O’Connell said. “He has to be a little bit more in control and not fall into her traps. In those instances, he did.”
Trump had proudly declared in advance of the first clash that he was doing little formal preparation, a stark contrast to the intense practice that Clinton underwent. A number of commentators asserted that the former secretary of State’s work had paid off, seen in the crispness of her remarks as much as in the substance of them.
But Navarro suggested that such evaluations were rooted in a Beltway sensibility rather than an understanding of the issues that matter to voters.
“There is a difference between scoring the debate and winning an election,” he insisted, asserting that there had been a glut of “red herring” criticism.
“At the end of this debate, he won decisively on the two key issues that were brought up, and that was the economy, and law and order. Hands down, he won on that. You could argue debating points, and people could have those conversations. My job is to look at the strategy and the issues, and he won on strategy.”
Navarro also echoed Trump’s own criticisms that his microphone appeared, at least in the debate hall, to be less effective than Clinton’s. Other Trump supporters, Mueller and O’Connell among them, were somewhat critical of the performance of moderator Lester Holt, who they contended was more aggressive in his questioning of Trump than of Clinton.
None went as far as Trump ally and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who said that if he were Trump, “I wouldn’t participate in another debate unless I was promised the journalist would act like a journalist and not an ignorant fact-checker.”
Attention is already turning toward the second Trump-Clinton clash, which will take place on Oct. 9 in St. Louis.
Clinton is ahead in polls, and a bounce in her favor seems possible given the favorable reviews for her own debate performance.
That means a win for Trump in the second debate could be crucial.
Some of the GOP nominee’s supporters believe that he will be helped because the second clash will be in a town hall format, enabling the candidates to interact with the audience. Trump, his allies contend, is better in front of a lively crowd than in front of the sworn-to-silence audience at Monday night’s clash.
Mueller also suggested that, in advance of the second encounter, Trump could work to “humanize” his policy points by talking about how they would help specific individuals whom he knows or has met on the campaign trail.
For most Trump backers, though, the overarching message from Monday seemed to be: We live to fight another day.
“It’s a three-game set,” said Navarro. “He took a measure of his rival. She hit him with everything she had, in the most rehearsed way possible, and barely laid a glove on him.”
Scott Wong contributed.