A better performance from Donald Trump, but it might not be enough

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, on Oct 9, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - A much-improved Mr Donald Trump put in a stronger performance than his rival Hillary Clinton at the second presidential debate in St Louis - though the ugly, often ill-tempered, face-off is unlikely to do much to repair the damage done to the tycoon's campaign in recent days.

After a disastrous two weeks, Mr Trump came out swinging in the second debate on Sunday (Monday Oct 10, Singapore time), making sure to avoid the defensiveness that marred his first debate performance on Sept 26.

He largely steered clear of taking the bait on attacks from Mrs Clinton, constantly pivoted away from his weak points to take shots at his opponent and stayed more consistently on his message about the former secretary of state being a political insider.

Mrs Clinton, in turn, was far more passive than she was at the first debate, appearing almost as if she is now simply trying to protect a lead, rather than run up the score. She did not land any significant blows, nor did she commit any major gaffes.

In effect, it turned out to be Mr Trump that provided most of the memorable moments - some that worked for him, and some against.

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, on Oct 9, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

The circumstances of the campaign entering the debate were such that Mr Trump effectively needed a near-perfect performance to try and stem the bleeding caused by the recent reports of him allegedly failing to pay personal income taxes for years and the leaked video of him making deeply offensive remarks about women.

For all his improvement, however, Mr Trump failed to properly address both issues. And that means the matter - in particular the video of sexist remarks - will continue to haunt the campaign.

On Friday, a tape was released showing Mr Trump talking about women in vulgar sexual terms in 2005. The tape triggered a backlash, even from within his own party, with at least 16 Republicans revoking their support for him since the release of the tape.

What the party had hoped for at the debate was thus a full-throated, sincere apology for those remarks that might allow everyone to move past the issue.

Mr Trump clearly had other ideas. Even before the debate began, he had signalled his intended strategy to try and defend his remarks by accusing former president Bill Clinton of doing worse and Mrs Clinton of enabling him.

He held a press conference with women who had accused Mr Clinton of sexual assault ahead of the debate and then invited them to sit in the debate hall.

When the issue came up early in the debate, Mr Trump gave erratic answers, first repeating his argument that it was just "locker room talk", then apologising and then quickly pivoting to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"Yes, I'm very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it's locker room talk and it's one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We're going to defeat ISIS," he said.

He then went after the former president for his indiscretions.

"There's never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that's been so abusive to women, so you can say any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women."

His remarks effectively added fuel to the fire at a time when many in his party were hoping for him to douse it.

Mrs Clinton also went after Mr Trump early on for the remarks made on the video, saying it made him unfit for the presidency.

"You know, with prior Republican nominees for president, I disagreed with them on politics, policies and principles, but I never questioned their fitness to serve. Donald Trump is different."

On taxes, Mr Trump went so far as to admit that he had used his loss of nearly US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) as a write off, although he did not specify how many years he avoided paying income tax.

Where Mr Trump excelled was in taking Mrs Clinton to task for her e-mail scandal for the remarks she made that were exposed in e-mails published by Wikileaks over the weekend.

He hit her on her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state relentlessly and even declared an intention to prosecute her if he became president.

"If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney-general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. There has never been so many lies, so much exception. There has never been anything like it. We will have a special prosecutor," he said.

Mrs Clinton replied: "It's just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country."

Mr Trump said to laughter from the crowd: "Because you would be in jail."

Then when Mrs Clinton invoked former president Abraham Lincoln to defend one of her remarks, Mr Trump landed another hit.

"She lied. Now she's blaming the lie on the late great Abraham Lincoln. That's one that I haven't - okay, honest Abe never lied. That's the good thing. That's the big difference between Abraham Lincoln and you," he said.

Though the town hall format of the second debate featured undecided voters on stage, neither candidate appeared to be spending much time targeting the middle.

Mrs Clinton - and to a greater extent - Mr Trump seemed to be more concerned with shoring up their bases. The most obvious examples were when the questions came from a Muslim woman and an African-American man.

In both instances, Mr Trump doubled down on potentially offensive statements about each minority group, implying that the Muslim community is not doing enough to fight terror and describing problems he saw in inner-city black communities.

Taken as a whole, it is thus difficult to declare a clear winner of the night's proceedings. Mr Trump put in a performance that would give his supporters cheer but won't do much for anyone else. Mrs Clinton was steady, if unremarkable, throughout.

That likely leaves the race in very much the same place as it was before the debate. And that is better news for Mrs Clinton than Mr Trump.

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