By Ben Kamisar – – – – – – –
Donald Trump needs to deliver a race-changing performance in Sunday’s town hall debate in St. Louis to have a chance at the White House.
A strong performance by running mate Mike Pence at his own debate this Tuesday has stopped the bleeding for the Trump campaign after a difficult stretch.
But presidential elections aren’t won or lost at vice presidential debates.
Trump needs to beat Hillary Clinton — and be seen as the winner — to give hope to his supporters and bring energy to his campaign.
Here are five things he can do to improve on his first debate performance.
Learn from Pence
The reaction to Pence’s debate performance was everything the GOP ticket had hoped for when Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, took on Clinton, the Democratic nominee, last week.
Pence won the post-debate polls that Trump lost, and partisans on both sides praised the Indiana governor’s calm and collected approach.
His decision to deny most of Trump’s most controversial statements drew the ire of Democrats and served as the basis for a new Clinton attack ad that contradicted those denials.
At the same time, the strategy worked in that Pence didn’t have to fight a losing battle onstage, re-litigating every questionable statement Trump has made. Instead, he stayed on message, often pivoting to a criticism of Clinton.
While Trump fell into traps laid by Clinton, who responded with scripted attack lines, Pence used Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s canned lines against him.
Republicans are hoping that on Sunday, Trump can take a page from his running mate’s book.
Trump reportedly didn’t practice much ahead of his own debate. That backfired, as he found out primary and general election debates are completely different animals.
During the primaries, a crowded stage allowed Trump to land pointed blows and retreat into the background, limiting lengthy policy discussions.
That’s not possible in a one-on-one scrap, and especially not in the town hall format that will be used Sunday in St. Louis.
There are signs that Trump is devoting more time to practicing for the debate this time.
Most notably, on Thursday night, Trump will take part in a town hall-style event in New Hampshire.
But while his early public schedule has him off the trail in the 48 hours before the debate, Trump added an appearance Saturday at an event with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
That appearance will give him less time to prepare for Sunday night.
Keep fight on favorable ground
Trump actually was doing well in the first debate — for 30 minutes.
He hammered Clinton over her position on trade, an issue his camp believes will resonate with the Rust Belt voters he needs to secure states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
But he barely mentioned her private email server or her family foundation’s controversies, two crucial GOP lines of attack.
Republicans cried foul, arguing that the moderator should have spent more time on those issues. But Trump has likely learned he can’t trust the moderator, so it will be up to him to keep the conversation on Clinton’s weaknesses and his perceived strengths of the economy and trade.
“He needs to stick to the offense and on his ground as opposed to taking the bait any time there’s a charge against him, “ said University of Michigan debate expert Aaron Kall.
“Stick to the things that got you there — your message on trade, the economy, outsourcing and immigration.”
The town hall puts a premium on connecting with the voters. And with the favorability ratings of both candidates in the gutter, there’s quite some room to grow.
Trump’s campaign has argued over the past few days that he’s better at connecting with people than Clinton and that her over-prepared nature won’t serve her as well on Sunday as it did last week.
“There’s no amount of programming or different lines that someone can memorize going into a town hall format,” Trump spokesman Jason Miller said Wednesday on CNN’s “New Day” of Clinton.
Independent voters will make up a significant portion of the debate audience.
These voters likely don’t have a positive view of either candidate. Kall said Trump will have to resist the urge to go negative in order to connect — even as Clinton seeks to tempt him.
“He’s going to have to not engage and pivot to the high road — the town hall forum is a perfect place to do that,” Kall said.
Watch out for interruptions and unforced errors
While Clinton won the post-debate polls, Trump also made a handful of slip-ups that continue to haunt him.
Trump’s repeated interruptions hurt him in the first debate of 2016, just as they hurt Kaine in the vice presidential showdown.
Democrats amplified his aside that using laws to avoid paying income tax is “smart,” messaging that blew up once The New York Times published tax information that showed he took an almost $1 billion loss in 1995 that could have allowed him to avoid paying federal income taxes for 18 years.
Trump also opened himself up to barbs about his criticism of a former Miss Universe, an attack that prompted a surprised Trump to ask, “Where did you find this?”