Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton appeared headed toward a deeply personal showdown at their second presidential debate Sunday, as each campaign signaled their respective candidate was poised to accuse the other of mistreating women.
Clinton, the Democratic nominee, already has assailed Trump on the issue, arguing in their first debate that Trump was verbally abusive to the 1996 Miss Universe winner, while also rattling off a list of demeaning words Trump purportedly used for her and other women.
Trump, the Republican nominee, has since the Sept. 26 debate praised himself for not mentioning on stage the sexual indiscretions of Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, saying such a tactic would be “disrespectful.”
But nothing appears off limits now -- after the release Friday of a 2005 audiotape in which Trump is heard saying his star power allowed him to kiss and fondle women.
The wealthy businessman and former reality TV star has since the release of the tape hinted he might indeed mention President Clinton’s sex scandals, while also going to Twitter to amplify the allegations of Clinton’s female accusers.
Three of the women appeared in a video posted Sunday on Breitbart.com.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mock said hours before the debate that his candidate intends to “focus on the issues.”
“This race is between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump and Bill Clinton,” he told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
However, how Hillary Clinton will respond to Trump’s attacks remains to be seen.
Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani, a former New York City mayor, didn’t offer any Trump strategy on “Fox News Sunday,” saying only that on issues Trump is “much better suited to run the country than Hillary Clinton, who has her own set of flaws … and problems.”
A poll conducted for Fairleigh Dickinson University and released last week showed women favor Clinton over Trump 56-to-32 percent.
And Clinton now leads Trump by 4.6 percentage points, according RealClearPolitics’ most recent polls average.
Trump wanted a strong debate performance Sunday night to reignite his campaign, but the emergence of the damaging audiotape has added to his now uphill challenge.
His campaign was already struggling in the weeks after the first debate.
And Trump appeared to make matters worse with a flurry of pre-dawn tweets that attempted to further assail the Miss Universe winner’ character and suggestions that Clinton has over roughly the past 35 years tried to discredit and silence her husband’s female accusers.
“I really don’t know how he can dig out of this,” Douglas Smith, a Democratic strategist and partner at Kent Strategies, said Saturday on Fox News’ “America’s News Headquarters.”
The Sunday night debate is a town hall-style event at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
“If he could make the degree of difficulty go up at a town hall-style debate, which is already difficult … he just did,” Republican strategist Kevin Sheridan also said Saturday on “America’s News Headquarters.”
Sheridan, who was House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan’s spokesman when the Wisconsin Republican was the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee, further argued that Trump has never participated in a town hall-style debate, which he says are more difficult than other debate formats.
He also argued the tape has overshadowed WikiLeaks on Friday releasing a trove of purportedly hacked Clinton campaign emails that include the candidate saying during a Wall Street speech that she has become “far removed” from middle-class life and seemed to suggest support for open U.S. borders.
“She’s also going to have to answer for that,” Sheridan said.
Trump has apologized twice for his remarks in the 2005 tape, including in a video statement in which he said: “I said it, I was wrong and I apologize.”
However, amid fellow party members’ admonishments and calls for him to end his campaign, Trump repeatedly said Saturday in newspaper interviews and on Twitter that he’ll “never drop out of the race.”
Beyond the WikiLeaks release and the tape scandal, Clinton and Trump, respectively, will have challenges talking about policy and politics in the town hall format, if past is indeed prologue.
President Bush conspicuously checked his watch. Al Gore got too close for comfort. Mitt Romney strode across stage to confront President Barack Obama face to face.
Clinton and Trump also will be fielding questions from undecided voters seated nearby with the added dose of unpredictability associated with the candidates being allowed to move around the stage, putting them in unusually close proximity.
"There's a lot more interaction, physical interaction," says Judd Gregg, the former New Hampshire senator who helped President George W. Bush prepare for debates.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.