At best, Trump held his own, scoring points with his base on the Second Amendment and abortion early, maybe giving some back with his extended rant about Russia.
And then: he fell down flat on the easiest question of the night.
This was how it was posed by the moderator Chris Wallace, of Fox News:
“Your running mate, Governor Pence, pledged on Sunday that he and you – his words – “will absolutely accept the result of this election.” Today your daughter, Ivanka, said the same thing. I want to ask you here on the stage tonight: do you make the same commitment that you will absolutely – sir, that you will absolutely accept the result of this election?”
Trump’s answer: “I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now. I’ll look at it at the time.”
Wallace tried, twice, to give Trump another chance at it. Trump was too busy digging the hole deeper to notice.
“What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. OK?” he said.
He wasn’t on the path to do what he needed to do to use the debate to climb back into the race, necessarily, but there was still a sliver of hope that lightning could strike.
It was lost right there.
The refusal to acknowledge that he would accept the results of the election in the event that he may lose, something that he had been making clear on the campaign trail in recent days, claiming that the race, still three weeks from the first results being reported, was already being “rigged” against him, was guaranteed at that moment to be the headline post-debate.
And it’s not a good headline.
Well, OK, maybe it’s a headline that will play to his hardcore base, who, like him, seem to think that the election isn’t going to go the way they hoped it would, and are looking for whatever excuse they can make stick to explain why.
The moment was illustrative of the biggest problem that Trump has as a candidate. Tonight, as at the first two debates, and as on the campaign trail since he wrapped the GOP nomination back in the spring, Trump still seemed to be stuck in nomination candidate mode.
Trump is the classic what we call in state-level politics June candidate, June being the month that state party primaries are held, but he’s not the best November candidate, when general elections are held.
His campaign team, surrogates and his pick for veep, Mike Pence, are in constant spin mode, trying to walk back his many controversial comments, the ones that served him so well back in the first half of 2016, as they no doubt will in the coming days on the “rigged” election issue.
Just as likely as it is that the Trump team will try to spin what he had to say on the conduct of the election, though, it’s just as likely, or more so, that the candidate himself will undermine those efforts, with a series of Twitterbombs, incendiary comments at a rally, off-TelePromTer, or a combination of the two.
Again, it’s what worked so well back when it was just Republicans voting.
As endearing as this may be to the committeds, Trump needs to invite more people under his tent to make up the big deficit he is facing in the polls, not just in blue and battleground states, but even in states like Arizona, Texas and Utah, reliably red states that are now very much up for grabs.
Even without the “rigged” election fiasco, Trump wasn’t growing his base.
He did do a fair job, though, of rolling out Trump TV, coming soon for $9.99 monthly to a web-equipped TV near you.
Column by Chris Graham