Donald Trump strived to save his candidacy on Saturday as a wave of Republicans began calling for him to step aside, fearful his bragging about sexual assaults will ruin not only his own campaign but poison those of other Republicans as well.
Trump retreated to his tower in New York as several members of his own party urged him to step down as their presidential nominee, including at least 9 members of the Senate, 11 members of the House of Representatives, former rival Carly Fiornia, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Many others withdrew their endorsements. Almost none spoke up in his defense.
Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, abruptly canceled an appearance in Wisconsin, where he was supposed to be the last-minute stand-in for Trump when Trump was dis-invited by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R. Wis.
Pence issued a short statement and suggested he’s waiting – like much of the party – to see how Trump handles himself at the second presidential debate Sunday night.
“We pray for his family and look forward to the opportunity he has to show what is in his heart,” Pence said.
Trump worked to stop any speculation that he might withdraw. He called newspapers to insist he will remain, blamed the “media and establishment” for wanting him out of the race, and tweeted that he’d never drop out. He added: “WILL NEVER LET MY SUPPORTERS DOWN!”
Few Republicans believe that with votes already cast in some states, Trump could be replaced on the ticket at this late date. But they fretted that Trump may have finally gone too far and that the party’s embrace of him may have irreparably harmed its chances with voters, especially women.
The focus began to switch Saturday to salvaging the Senate, even as Trump’s campaign suggested it would seek to portray Trump as apologetic, releasing a statement from his wife, Melania, that called his remarks “unacceptable and offensive.” The two were married at the time of the tape.
“This does not represent the man that I know. He has the heart and mind of a leader,” Melania Trump said in a statement. “I hope people will accept his apology, as I have, and focus on the important issues facing our nation and the world.”
Trump is now under massive pressure at Sunday’s debate at Washington University in St. Louis. Not only must he recover from an uneven performance at his first debate with Hillary Clinton, he must show enough contrition and self-control that more nervous Republicans won’t abandon him.
Scott Jennings, a political veteran who ran Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s 2012 Ohio campaign, said Trump faces irreparable damage if he doesn’t address the fracas before the debate starts at 9 pm EDT.
“He’s going to bleed out before the debate ever starts,” Jennings said. “I would put him out there before this debate starts. Otherwise there is no virtually no way to win.”
With each passing hour, though, Republicans and particularly Republican women, punctuated the deep chasm in their party.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W. Va., who had supported Trump, called for him to “reexamine his candidacy.” She said that she was offended by Trump’s remarks as a woman, mother and grandmother.
“There is no excuse for the disgusting and demeaning language,” Capito said.
Other Republicans, some facing tough reelection battles, sought to distance themselves as well.
“I’m a mom and an American first and I cannot and will not support a candidate for president who brags about degrading and assaulting women,”said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, who already this week backtracked on her remarks at a debate that she would consider Trump a “role model” for her children.
She said Saturday she’d write in Pence for president.
Republicans who had been critical of Trump for months and had only reluctantly supported him began to distance themselves from Trump late Friday in the hours after a 2005 tape of Trump trash talking began to circulate.
“There will be consequences. Republicans and the party will be paying for this for years to come,” said Doug Heye, a veteran Republican strategist who doesn’t support either candidate. He said he fears the decision to nominate Trump will hurt Republicans in down ballot races next month and beyond.
“They will turn away from the party forever because of this,” Heye said of voters. “It’s a stain on the GOP’s soul.”
Still, the party’s top leaders were more wary, issuing stern reprimands but stopping well short of calling for a change at the top.
Most were waiting to see how Trump performs in Sunday’s debate, and whether his poll numbers plunge to levels so deep he can’t recover. The key players are House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Ryan was a reluctant supporter of Trump, waiting weeks after the nomination was secure to back him, and he was the first prominent Republican Friday to distance himself from the nominee.
McConnell is in a more delicate spot, weighing carefully whether Trump is a liability or asset. Seven Republicans are seeking to protect seats in states President Barack Obama carried in 2012, and most are seen as vulnerable.
McConnell is known as a shrewd political handicapper who does not make rash moves. If he pulls away from Trump publicly, that’s likely to start a political avalanche.
Currently, Republicans control the Senate with 54 seats to 44 seats for Democrats and two independents. Democrats need a net gain of four seats if Clinton wins and five seats if Trump wins to gain control of the chamber. Of the 34 Senate seats up for election this year, 24 are held by Republicans.
In the House, Republican hold 246 seats to the Democrats’ 186. Democrats need to pick up over 30 seats to win control of the chamber, something that analysts consider an improbable task.
The audio of Trump talking crudely about women, which seemingly played on a loop on cable TV, is “certainly is not going to help him with college-educated women, women in the Philadelphia suburbs, in Northern Virginia, or with millennial women on college campuses,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College poll in Pennsylvania.
“It’s not helpful, to put it mildly,” Madonna said. “It’s just so graphic, the profanity. You heard the words.”
And Trump’s troubles could spill over to Senate and House races.
“What the Republicans are going to have to do is redouble their down ballot efforts,” Madonna said. “Now it’s going to be ‘Forget the top of the ticket.’”
Democrats have not been entirely successful in tying Trump to down ballot candidates, but the remarks could give them a better opening, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
She suggested that Trump can hardly do worse with women voters than he is already doing, but that the gap may widen with college-educated white men.
Regardless, the fracas threatened to further divide Trump’s base and the Republican Party establishment. Furious Trump supporters pointed to what they saw as a double standard in coverage of Trump’s remarks: alleging that the media turned a blind eye to former president Bill Clinton’s sexual misdeeds and what they saw as Hillary Clinton’s aggressive efforts to help him cover them up
“If it was okay for Hillary Clinton that Bill Clinton would run for re-election after what he did, why it is not okay for Donald Trump to continue?“ said Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican party chairman. “Trump just boasted about doing something. Bill Clinton did something.”
He noted that Republicans running from Trump had “political reasons” for wanting to extract themselves and said the religious right was feeling pressure “to do the right thing.”
But he suggested that most voters would “wait until after the debate to see how this plays out.”
Many conservatives will continue to back Trump because they do not have a choice and Trump’s “grossly inappropriate language” in a private conversation doesn’t change the situation, said former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer.
Clinton, he said, “is mired in corruption and has put U.S. secrets at risk.”
Trump’s comments were “indefensible,” said Steve Scheffler, an Iowa Republican committeeman and president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. But he still intends to vote for Trump.
“If Hillary Clinton is elected, the Supreme Court will be lost in my lifetime and the generation after,” Scheffler said. “If Donald Trump remains the nominee, I will still vote for him – not because of what he’s done – but because I fear a presidency of hers.”
This version adds new summary of people urging Trump to step down and adds factbox with list of Republicans who have called on Trump to step down as nominee or have withdrawn support.
David Lightman contributed
William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas
REPUBLICANS CHANGING ON TRUMP
Urging him to resign from the GOP ticket
Gov. Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota
Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado
Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho
Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona
Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois
Sen. Mike Lee of Utah
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska
Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska
Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota
Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama
Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado
Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia
Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois
Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania
Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada
Rep. Kay Granger of Texas
Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama
Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah
Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan
Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri
Colorado Senate nominee Darryl Glenn
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
Former Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina
Former Republican presidential candidate George Pataki
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman
Nevada Rep. Cresent Hardy
Conservative talk radio show host Hugh Hewitt
Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama
Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah
Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire
Sen. John McCain of Arizona
Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah
Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida
Maria Recio, Anna Douglas, Tony Pugh and Lindsay Wise contributed