Trump’s debate remark puts white supremacy at focus of campaign

Trump’s debate remark puts white supremacy at focus of campaign

Washington: Donald Trump's volcanic debate performance has put the President's sympathy for white supremacists in the campaign spotlight, heightening a sense of menacing chaos in the campaign that threatens to undercut other Republicans up for reelection in a year that was already a challenge for the party.

The remarks unsettled Trump's allies and gave his rival, Joe Biden, a springboard to return to the themes that propelled the former vice-president's bid – a restoration of the nation's character that had been degraded by political coarseness and racial animus.

Former vice-president Joe Biden Biden embarked on a seven-stop train tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania on Wednesday.Credit:AP

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a Republican, said on CNN that "the Democrats owe a lot to Chris Wallace," blaming the moderator for having asked the question that elicited Trump's Proud Boys comment.

"He was asking the President to do something he knows the President doesn't like to do, which is, say something bad about people who support him."

The Trump campaign felt compelled to rehash in a video the times over the years that the President has condemned the Ku Klux Klan. "Here Are 7 Examples Of President Trump Condemning The KKK," the campaign's "Trump War Room" account tweeted.

But the President himself did not walk back his comment, criticising Wallace, instead, and retweeting comments from conservative backers attacking Biden.

The controversy echoed the blowback over Trump's handling of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, three years ago, when he said there were "very fine people on both sides." Biden said those comments spurred him to run for president, and now he's capitalising on a sequel to fuel his campaign in the closing weeks.

Trump's aides have been hoping to reshape the final weeks of the campaign in terms Republicans think work to his advantage – as a choice between himself and Biden, whom he portrays as a tool of the Democratic Party's extreme left wing.

US President Donald Trump during the first presidential debate.Credit:AP

The reaction to Tuesday night's debate, however, appeared to lock in the current framework of the race – a referendum on Trump, which has clearly favoured the Democrats.

On network morning shows, a key source of information for swing voters who tend not to closely follow politics, Republicans had difficulty defending Trump.

On CBS' This Morning, for example, former Republican Party chair Reince Priebus tried to avoid commenting on Trump's remark about the Proud Boys, claiming he hadn't heard him say it.

"You'll have to ask him," Priebus said when host Gayle King asked if Trump would condemn white supremacists on Wednesday.

Even Brian Kilmeade, a Trump-friendly host on Fox & Friends, the President's favourite television show, expressed sharp disappointment.

"Donald Trump ruined the biggest lay-up in the history of debates by not condemning white supremacists," he said. "I don't know if he didn't hear it, but he's gotta clarify that right away. That's like, are you against evil? Why the President didn't just knock it out of the park, I'm not sure."

Trump was also rebuked by the sheriff of Portland, Oregon, whom the President claimed during the debate was a supporter.

"I have Florida, I have Texas, I have Ohio," Trump said. "Excuse me, Portland, the sheriff there just came out today and said, 'I support President Trump.' "

But Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese went on Twitter on Tuesday to deny any such support.

"As the Multnomah County Sheriff I have never supported Donald Trump and will never support him," he tweeted.

The aftermath of the debate could pose a threat not only to the President, who has trailed Biden for months, but also to Republicans up for re-election in swing states, such as Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who are already struggling to keep the backing of Trump supporters while distancing themselves enough from the President to woo swing voters.

The debate could also hurt Republican efforts to hold onto swing congressional districts in the nation's suburbs.

"Many found the entire debate disturbing," said Sarah Chamberlain, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership PAC, a group that supports the dwindling band of Republican centrists in the House.

"Our polling shows he damaged the brand in suburban areas," she said.

As the post-debate commentary swirled, Biden embarked on a seven-stop train tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania, and underscored a theme he tried to get across in the din of Tuesday's debate.

"Does your President understand at all what you're going through?" he said.

"Does he see you where you are and where you want to be? Does he care? Has he tried to walk in your shoes to understand what's going on in your life?"

Trump plans a rally later in the day in Minnesota.

Analysts were puzzled by what Trump was trying to accomplish in the debate. He needs to win over moderate Republicans and wavering independents to overcome Biden's lead in polls. But instead he appears to have unnerved them.

Two public snap polls poll of debate viewers showed Biden winning the debate; 60 per cent-28 per cent in a poll by CNN; a closer outcome, 48 per cent-41 per cent, in one by CBS.

Trump Biden 2020

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