KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Donald Trump on Sunday may have stopped the political hemorrhage that threatened his presidential campaign and perhaps his Republican Party, at least in the heartland state of Missouri.
His attacks on rival Hillary Clinton in their second debate Sunday in St. Louis helped energize some of his voters and helped remind them of their opposition to Clinton, according to interviews with a focus group of Missouri voters conducted by McClatchy and the Kansas City Star.
At the same time, though, his decision to broaden his attacks to Bill Clinton and accusations of sexual misconduct did not help, with several voters saying they did not like it and that it drove them more into Hillary Clinton’s camp.
In all, six of 16 members of the group changed their thinking about the candidates.
Three moved closer to Trump. One moved from leaning Clinton to solid Clinton, one moved from undecided to Clinton and another moved from Libertarian Gary Johnson to undecided.
The three who moved closer to Trump suggested the businessman still has some political life. This debate was crucial to his survival in the race, coming two days after release of an 11-year-old tape showing him boasting about making unwanted sexual advances on women.
Nationally, a CNN post-debate poll found 57 percent thought Clinton won the debate while 34 percent gave the victory to Trump.
But 63 percent said Trump did better than they expected, and 60 percent said Clinton did worse than anticipated. That roughly reflected the views of the focus group, whose members generally agreed Trump performed better Sunday than in the first debate.
Trump’s backers were still not crazy about him, but shuddered at the idea of Hillary Clinton as president.
“I vehemently disagree with her stances,” said Tim Melin, 31, who works in purchasing in Kansas City. He was leaning Trump before the debate. He was solid for Trump afterward, although he gave Clinton high marks for answering questions directly.
Tim Davis, 34, a construction worker from Gladstone, Mo., followed the same path, notably because he fears what Clinton will do to the Supreme Court.
“Unfortunately,” he said, he’d vote for Trump, because of the court. “To me, that says more about this country’s future than the presidency does,” Davis said.
He was leaning Trump earlier Sunday, but the debate solidified his support.
“One moment she’s all for banning personal ownership of guns,” he explained. “tonight, she’s ‘Oh, I respect the Second Amendment.”
Melinda McMahon, 31, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law student, had been leaning to Clinton before the debate. After the exchange, she inched into the undecided camp.
McMahon had voted for the GOP’sMitt Romney in 2012 and backed John Kasich, the center-right governor of Ohio, in the Republican primary. But Trump appalls her.
“I don’t really don’t see him as an effective leader,” she said.
Some suggested Trump hurt himself bringing up Bill Clinton.
The furor over the Trump tape helped Clinton a bit, and Trump hurt himself somewhat by bringing up Bill Clinton’s history. Trump invited three women who have accused Bill Clinton of rape or unwanted sexual advances to the debate audience, a visual reminder his criticism of the Clintons.
“I don’t think it’s an effective attack,” said Alex Boyer, 26, “Attacking Hillary Clinton or Bill Clinton is the very definition of hypocrisy.” Boyer’s planning to vote for Johnson.
Jazmine Clark, 21, of Kansas City, moved solidly into Hillary Clinton’s camp. She saw no reason for Trump to bring up Clinton’s husband.
Shacyra Johnson, 21, of Kansas City, went from undecided to leaning toward voting for Clinton. She didn’t appreciate Trump’s comments about Muslims, and while she’s still not enthusiastic about Clinton, “at least she knows what she’d doing.”
Voters who began the night eager to see Clinton improve her standing maintained she had done well. “Trump from a character standpoint was completely unqualified,” said Thomas Randolph, a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school.
He had been leaning Clinton before the tape was released, but quickly moved solidly into Clinton’s camp when he saw it.
Trump’s ability to solidify his support in Missouri is critical, if not for his own prospects then for other Republicans.
Most politicians in the state believe Trump enjoys a small lead a month before the election, and will likely claim the state’s 10 electoral votes. But they say the weekend’s events could erode Republican enthusiasm in the state, threatening down-ballot candidates such as Sen. Roy Blunt, who is locked in a tight race with Secretary of State Jason Kander.