What does Donald Trump do now?
The general consensus among the media, debate experts and various Republicans outside his core following was that Hillary Clinton won their first presidential debate Monday night.
She was prepared, disciplined and didn’t yield to his hectoring. Trump was just the opposite and, though he denied it, seemed to allow Clinton to get under his skin and provoke him.
“By any standard that we judge, she did win,” said former Republican Congressman Vin Weber of Minnesota, a lobbyist, longtime political insider and Trump critic. “She looked strong to me. Her appearance was strong as well. Her debating points were strong.”
Trump on Tuesday pointed to a flurry of online polls that rated him the winner. But they are unscientific, unreliable yardsticks. For one thing, voters can cast more than one ballot.
Moreover, the first thing Trump did Tuesday morning was appear on Fox News to tick off a series of complaints about the debate: that moderator Lester Holt of NBC didn’t ask Clinton tough questions, that Trump’s microphone was bad and he “wondered if it was set up that way.”
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Trump ally, suggested that the GOP nominee should be a no-show at the next two debates unless the moderators agree not to weigh in. He complained that Holt had interjected himself by attempting to fact-check several of Trump’s responses, but none of Clinton’s.
Republican pollster and strategist David Winston said he didn’t know what not showing up would accomplish.
“That would be just an admission that he can’t do it,” Winston said. “If he can’t be onstage with an opponent and go toe to toe, that does say a lot to the American people.”
Told of Guiliani’s idea, Clinton told reporters: “Anyone who complained about the microphone is not having a good night.”
With the second Clinton-Trump encounter looming Oct. 9 in St. Louis, several Republicans worried publicly about their nominee’s performance and whether he has the ability to regroup and develop a different approach.
Debate losers can rebound. President Barack Obama lost his first debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, then won the next two. Ronald Reagan bested former Vice President Walter Mondale, the Democrat, after losing their initial face-off in 1984.
Former Romney campaign aide Kevin Madden said the Trump campaign needed to “draw several contrasts to try to do a better job exposing her areas of vulnerability.”
The next debate demands some shifting of tactics because it will be a town-hall setting where the audience gets to ask the questions. It’s a format that requires the self-command to respond to the questioner’s personal concern with specifics, not practiced campaign generalities.
Those are not Trump’s strengths. Republicans consoled themselves by noting that even with Clinton’s strong performance, it probably didn’t change the race’s dynamic in any significant way. Still, they worry that Trump blew an important opportunity.
“This was not just an ability to counterpunch,” said former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. “It’s just the idea that in that moment, on that grand stage, where literally close to 100 million people were watching around the globe . . . that you show your presidential gravitas. It’s not just about temperament. It’s about the combination of things you will bring to the Oval Office.”
Steele said Trump had started off well, “but it became apparent he didn’t have the stamina to maintain, that he was easily distracted.”
The contest for the White House has tightened in recent weeks. Clinton’s lead nationally has narrowed, as have polls in some key swing states. Despite the fluctuations, pollsters in both parties say she continues to maintain a small lead. The problem for Trump and her is that voters aren’t happy with either.
Their favorability ratings are in the tank, with Clinton’s just slightly less negative than his: 55.1 percent, compared with 58.3 percent for Trump, according to the average of polls on the Real Clear Politics website..
That puts a premium on each campaign making sure it energizes its base and finds some way to tip those still on the fence their way.
But the hard core for each hopeful remains hard core.
Trump “needs to take this debate and learn from his mistakes,” supporter Irina Victorina, from Davie, Florida, told reporters Tuesday as the candidate campaigned in the state. “We don’t care about birther. We don’t care if he called a woman a pig. . . . He’s the nominee, we’ve moved on, so get over it.”
Anita Kumar and Lesley Clark contributed to this article.