Debate prep: Time is running out for Republican hopes of reforming Trump

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign rally Wednesday in Reno, Nevada.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign rally Wednesday in Reno, Nevada. AP

It’s not now or never, but for Donald Trump it’s getting pretty close.

The Republican presidential nominee will appear on the presidential debate stage with Hillary Clinton for the second time on Sunday, with the election clock ticking and his poll numbers sagging.

Supporters are hoping to see a new and improved Trump, one that is disciplined and prepared. Trump, who often has trouble sticking to prepared scripts, took a practice lap Thursday night, fielding questions from New Hampshire voters in the same town-hall style that will mark the debate Sunday at Washington University in St. Louis.

Thursday’s campaign event, however, featured attendees picked by his campaign and was moderated by a fan, Boston talk radio host Howie Carr, who presented overwhelmingly friendly questions to Trump. One questioner was Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire state representative who serves on Trump’s veterans’ coalition and was investigated by the Secret Service after calling for Hillary Clinton’s execution.

Trump insisted the practice run “has nothing to do with Sunday” – even as he tried, mostly without success, to keep his response to two minutes, with Carr manning a timer. Trump panned Clinton for taking time off the campaign trail to prepare. “That’s not debate prep,” he said. “She’s resting.”

His first question: Had he held back on personal attacks at the first debate? Yes, Trump said. “I’d much rather have it on policy. I didn’t like getting into the gutter.”

Trump’s appearance at the first debate was widely panned – even by Republicans – who said Trump allowed himself to be baited by Clinton, failed to show that he was ready to govern, and let slip opportunities to challenge Clinton.

“He’s got to convince people about his judgment, knowledge, and temperament,” said Carter Wrenn, a North Carolina-based Republican strategist. “If he can do that, he can repair some of the damage from the first debate.”

With nearly four weeks until election day, Trump still has time, though not much of it, to recover from his most recent stumbles, including prolonging negative news coverage of his treatment of a former Miss Universe.

“Time is a unique thing in political campaigns – you can’t make more of it,” Wrenn said. “Does he have time to do what he needs to do? Yes. Is it tougher to do it in four weeks than in four months? Absolutely. You have to hit the long ball.”

Iowa Gov. Terry Brandstad, who endorsed Trump in May, said Trump can take a lesson from his vice presidential running mate, Mike Pence, whom Brandstad said turned in a “phenomenal” performance at the sole vice presidential debate on Tuesday.

“My advice to Donald Trump is regardless of the attacks, and I think you will see vicious and outlandish attacks, ignore them and focus on the issues that Americans care about,” Brandstad said.

But Pence’s performance could cut both ways for Trump, who seemed on the campaign trail to have a difficult time sharing the limelight: even as he praised Pence’s showing, he suggested he should share in the applause.

“Mike Pence did an incredible job, and I’m getting a lot of credit because this was my so-called first choice, that was my first hire as we would say,” Trump said at a Nevada campaign rally.

Many Republicans are hoping Trump studies the debate between Pence and Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice presidential nominee.

“The hopeful part of me says he watches it and tries to copy what Pence does,” said Ari Fleischer, a Trump supporter who served as President George W. Bush’s press secretary. “The realistic part of me, watching Trump for more than a year now, says he is what he is.”

Fleischer said that “Pence showed how cool-headed he was and how easily he deflected Tim Kaine’s interruptions. My fear is Trump has too much Tim Kaine in him.”

Many analysts made comparisons between Trump’s constant interruptions during his debate and Kaine’s performance.

“The larger fact here is Trump needs to make certain changes to catch Hillary – no fights with beauty queens or the Khan family,” Fleischer said. “Just concentrate on Hillary for 90 minutes, not 30 minutes.”

Trump’s propensity for keeping controversies alive is part of what has dampened his numbers, said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York. After the Republican National Convention, Trump began a dispute that went on for weeks with the Clinton-supporting parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, whose actions were credited with saving several lives when the car bomb that killed him exploded in Afghanistan.

And after last week’s debate, he continued to flame controversy over his remarks about a former Miss Universe contestant, even tweeting insults in a Twitter storm that began at 3:20 in the morning and didn’t end till near dawn. The “tweet-storm” was widely mocked, including Clinton’s campaign, which chose 3:20 a.m. to promote on Twitter an article she’d written about public service.

“You start checking off these big events, it gets harder to change the dynamic,” he said.

That’s particularly true because early voting has already begun in states including Iowa, Minnesota and some counties in Wisconsin. Analysts expect more than 40 percent of the electorate in swing states to have voted before Nov. 8.

Clinton holds a 4.1 percentage point lead over Trump in a RealClearPolitics polling average this week.

Debates don’t make huge differences, but they can move the needle on the edges, said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.

He noted that Trump was tied or a “scootch ahead” of Clinton heading into the first debate, but that she’s now slightly ahead.

“It can help on the edges,” Brown said. “It certainly helped Clinton, but it didn’t change everything. And we’re still 4.5 weeks away.”

Clinton’s campaign said they’ve been told Trump is preparing “intensively” for the debate, including prepping with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a veteran of town-hall events.

“We expect a more focused, a more prepared Trump at this debate,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said. “We’re eager to see if he demonstrates the ability to be steady and not unravel or unwind the way he did in the last hour of the last debate.”

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas