Donald Trump faces a must-win presidential debate on Sunday night after a torrid 10 days left him trailing Hillary Clinton in opinion polls in key battleground states.
With early voting already under way, the Republican candidate has seen his September polling gains wiped out and is fast running out of time to shift momentum back his way in the race for the White House.
A live debate always raises the prospect of the ill-disciplined Trump allowing Clinton to get under his skin and making a gaffe that could throw his campaign into disarray. The bombastic billionaire stirred fresh controversy on Friday when, in a meeting with a union representing border patrol agents, he floated a new conspiracy theory, saying that immigration officials were trying to expand the pool of American voters.
Trump directly challenged the media to report his remarks, which followed comments by union vice-president Art Del Cueto in a meeting in Trump Tower in New York. Del Cueto told the celebrity businessman: “Immigration is so tied up with trying to get the people who are on the waiting list to hurry up and get them their immigration status corrected … so they can go ahead and vote before the election.”
“Big statement, fellas,” Trump said, motioning to reporters. “You’re not going to write it. That’s huge. But they’re letting people pour into the country so they can go and vote.”
Clinton was widely judged the winner of the first debate. Both candidates face a test of stagecraft on Sunday in what has become popularly known as a “town hall” format for their second showdown in St Louis, Missouri, moving around a stage with handheld microphones as they field questions from voters.
The first town hall debate was held during the 1992 election. As a voter stood to ask George H W Bush about the national debt, the president glanced down at his watch, an image that seemed to reinforce criticism that he lacked empathy. Clinton’s husband Bill won the election.
In 2000 George W Bush was answering a question on leadership during such a forum when Vice-President Al Gore rose from his chair and walked peculiarly close to his Republican rival. Bush turned and gave Gore a nod and a smile, prompting audience laughter.
Rick Tyler, a political analyst and former spokesperson for Republican primary candidate Ted Cruz, said of Trump: “From what I can tell from the polls, his prospects in the election are bleak. He’s going to need a game-changing win in the debate if he’s going to stand any chance in November.”
But the town hall format will not necessarily suit him. “He’s just not an impressive performer when it comes to answering people’s questions,” Tyler added. “He’s not grounded in policy, foreign or domestic. He doesn’t give a lot of thought to issues. He’s missing empathy; when someone asks a question, he has trouble connecting at their level.