Donald Trump delivered in 2nd debate, but campaign still mired in lewd tape scandal

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shake hands after the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shake hands after the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump performed better than expected, after a disastrous fortnight on the campaign trail, giving him a slight edge over his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton who stuck to the script and played it safe during the second presidential debate.

"The bar was tremendously low for him heading into the debate and he delivered," said director of debate Aaron Kall from the University of Michigan.

Added assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton Christopher Devine: "I thought he won the debate in terms of controlling its pace and putting Clinton on defence."

In particular, he said, Mr Trump was "disciplined and aggressive on the topic of Clinton's email server and Clinton seemed off-balance in responding".

At one point in the debate, Mr Trump threatened to imprison Mrs Clinton for the situation surrounding her use of a private email server.

"Trump's base will be thrilled tonight with calls to lock up Secretary Clinton, but Trump must still expand the playing field to prevail in November," said Mr Kall.

This comment however, spurred criticism from both Democrats and Republicans on Twitter.

"In the USA we do not threaten to jail political opponents. @realDonaldTrump said he would. He is promising to abuse the power of the office," former attorney general Eric Holder wrote in a tweet.

"Winning candidates don't threaten to put opponents in jail," said former George W. Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Mr Trump launched another attack when he brought up the phrase "basket of deplorable", which Mrs Clinton had used to describe his supporters. He had failed to do this in the last debate.

"She calls our people deplorable. A large group and irredeemable. I will be a president for all of our people," he said, trying to fire up his base.

"She's got tremendous hatred," Mr Trump added.

Experts said Mrs Clinton seem rattled at times, speculating that it could have been due to the impromptu press conference that Mr Trump had before the debate, which involved women who had accused former president Bill Clinton of rape or sexual assault.

"She seemed genuinely rattled when the subject matter turned to President Bill Clinton's past infidelities and having several of the women in the audience must have also been very difficult," said Mr Kall.

But some remained unconvinced that the debate could make a significant difference to the Trump campaign.

"Nothing in last night's debate is likely to change the effect of the Trump tapes. Their release is likely to solidify both Clinton's lead and her momentum," said Associate professor of political science Melissa Miller from Bowling Green State University.

According to the RealClearPolitics average, Mrs Clinton is ahead of Mr Trump in the polls by 4.6 percentage points.

While Mrs Clinton played it safe, experts agreed that was probably all she needed to do.

"There were several times she could have corrected Trump or engaged on a particular subject, but took a pass," said Mr Kall. "Her major goal was to avoid a disqualifying gaffe and it was mission accomplished in that regard."