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.
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.
“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.
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.”