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Professor: Trump must give 'fuller apology' at debate

Tom Fontaine
| Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, 10:30 p.m.
U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton answers a question from the audience at a 'Family Town Hall' campaign stop in Haverford, Pennsylvania, U.S.October 4, 2016.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder
U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton answers a question from the audience at a 'Family Town Hall' campaign stop in Haverford, Pennsylvania, U.S.October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a town hall-style forum, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016, in Sandown, N.H. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a town hall-style forum, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016, in Sandown, N.H. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

An 11-year-old video that surfaced Friday showing Donald Trump making lewd comments about women should make the Republican nominee rethink his strategy for Sunday night's presidential debate, experts say.

“He needs to make a fuller apology early on in the debate and temper his attacks after that,” said Mitchell S. McKinney, a communication professor at the University of Missouri who is a presidential debate scholar.

If Trump isn't asked about the “Access Hollywood” video controversy with the debate's first question, McKinney said, Trump should use time in his first answer — regardless of the question — to address the issue.

“It's going to be theelephant in the room. It's on everyone's mind,” McKinney said. “The burden on him now is to be contrite. It's not so much the length of the statement as it is the sincerity of the statement.”

After Trump's uneven performance against Hillary Clinton in the first presidential debate, Trump vowed to “hit her harder” in the second one.

The second debate's town hall format isn't ideal for a candidate to launch aggressive attacks against an opponent, and the “Access Hollywood” video controversy further complicates that approach for Trump.

“If he does apologize and appear contrite and then just pivots to a full-throated, guns-blazing attack on Hillary Clinton, particularly on some of the issues he raised after the first debate, the apology seems unauthentic,” McKinney said.

Among issues raised, Trump questioned whether Clinton has been faithful in her marriage. Any plan to bring that up during the second debate, given the video controversy, “just has to be thrown out (because) it doesn't pass the laugh test,” McKinney said.

Even without the video controversy, Joe Morris, director of Mercyhurst University's Center for Applied Politics, added, “Going on the attack in a town hall-style debate is a risky strategy. The potential is there for voters to say, ‘Hey, you're supposed to be talking to us.' ”

“We traditionally see the candidates at their nicest in the town hall debates because they are interacting with citizens and trying their best to show their likability and empathy,” McKinney added.

An exception occurred during the last presidential election when President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney engaged in a hostile town hall debate.

“Obama did poorly in the first debate and had to have a strong showing, so we saw some clashes,” McKinney said.

It could help Trump to have a strong showing.

While the Republican nominee clawed to within 2 percentage points of his Democratic opponent in several polls released just before the first debate, poor reviews of his performance in the first debate and a series of missteps in the days that followed likely helped widen the gap between Trump and Clinton. Three polls of likely Pennsylvania voters released last week showed Clinton's lead at between 4 points and 10 points.

Pennsylvania is a key battleground state with 20 electoral votes at stake. Trump is holding two rallies in the state on Monday, including one at Beaver County's Ambridge Area High School.

“It's fair to wonder if Donald Trump's surge in the polls has come to an end and his campaign has peaked. Campaigns never want to see their campaigns peak too far from Election Day, but we might have seen (Trump's peak) about two weeks ago,” Morris said.

Morris pointed to a stretch during early to mid-September when Trump appeared to gain steam as questions persisted about Clinton's health and scandals surrounding her campaign, such as her sharing classified information on a private email server while secretary of State and allegations that Clinton Foundation donors received undue political influence.

McKinney said he doesn't think Trump needs to regain all of the points lost in polls during Sunday's debate.

“Instead of some miraculous rebound, a steady, even-keeled, even-temperament performance is what he needs to quell the notion that she can get under his skin, make him take the bait and rattle him,” McKinney said.

Trump's ability to fashion himself as a political outsider and nontraditional candidate who would bring change to Washington has been “the driving force of his rise” in the campaign, McKinney said.

“Hillary Clinton has very little ammunition on that front. ... Only Donald Trump can carry off that line of attack,” McKinney said. “Whatever the question or topic is in Sunday's debate, if he can somehow relate it back to that theme, that would work well for him.”

For Clinton, Morris said, there is “a risk that she may approach this debate in a way that ensures she doesn't lose. But in a close race, I don't think that's enough. She has to do everything she can to win this debate and not just protect her lead” in the polls.

McKinney said it will be key for Clinton to engage the voters in the town hall in a way that counters the “perception that she is too cold or too formal. It's important for her to show that she can relate to ordinary citizens.”

Sunday's debate at Washington University in St. Louis starts at 9 p.m. The third and final debate will be Oct. 19 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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