GOP on the precipice

Story highlights

  • Top Republicans into an even more precarious position after Trump's debate
  • Ryan distances while Priebus and Pence stand by Trump

(CNN)Donald Trump isn't making it easy for Republicans.

The GOP nominee likely won a reprieve by exceeding low expectations at Sunday's debate. He may have stopped, at least for now, the stampede of Republicans who were fleeing from his campaign after a video emerged Friday of him discussing women in vulgar and sexually aggressive terms.
    But one truth is emerging from the wreckage of one of the most intense 72 hours in modern American politics: Trump has virtually no path right now to the 270 electoral votes he will need to capture the presidency in 28 days.
    Trump intensified his scorched earth strategy Tuesday with a tweetstorm in which he blasted Speaker Paul Ryan and John McCain and declared the "shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to."
    Trump's puzzling tactic of merely trying to energize his base supporters without demonstrating a broader strategy to win over more moderate voters, is pushing top Republicans into an even more precarious position. Because the debate wasn't a total flop, Trump made it harder for them to completely break with his floundering campaign at a time when his drag on the ticket could cost them control of the US Senate, and possibly even the House.
    "He basically reminded Republicans of the reasons why he's their nominee -- on Obamacare, judges, and the attacks on Hillary Clinton," said Lanhee Chen, a Republican strategist and CNN commentator who is also a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "Those are all things that made Republicans very comfortable. It makes it harder for officeholders and candidates to leave him."

    Conundrum for Republicans

    The conundrum for Republicans came into greater focus Monday. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken after Trump's tape surfaced found Hillary Clinton surging to an 11-point lead among likely voters in a four-way race for the White House. And without formally revoking his endorsement of Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan cut the nominee loose and said he would no longer defend him, instead devoting his energy to securing the congressional majorities.
    But Trump's running mate, Mike Pence, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus stood by the nominee Monday despite the bleak prospects.
    Pence congratulated Trump on the debate and said he never considered leaving the ticket -- even as dozens of Republicans called on the nominee to step aside over the weekend.
    "I'll always keep my conversations with Donald Trump and my family private," Pence told CNN's Alisyn Camerota on "New Day." "But it's absolutely false to suggest that at any point in time we considered dropping off this ticket."
    Running with Trump, Pence said, "is the greatest honor of my life."
    Preibus, meanwhile, put to rest talk that the RNC was ready to cut Trump off to devote resources exclusively to congressional races.
    "Nothing has changed in regard with our relationship," Priebus said in a call with RNC committee members, according to sources on the call. "We are in full coordination with the Trump campaign. We have a great relationship with them. And we are going to continue to work together to make sure he wins in November."
    For her part, Clinton and her allies are steadily becoming more bullish. The campaign is eyeing whether to spend money in additional states.
    "There is always a chance," Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters Monday. "It's the kind of thing that we are day-to-day on and we have to see how these states are looking and if that is a smart thing to do."
    Priorities USA, the leading super PAC supporting Clinton, is preparing to expand beyond the presidential race and potentially run television ads focused on a handful of competitive Senate races, CNN's Dana Bash reported Monday. Until now, Priorities USA has spent the 2016 election cycle entirely focused on getting Clinton elected. The fact that they may use their resources to also promote Democratic candidates in down-ballot races suggests how increasingly confident they are in a Clinton victory.
    Still, there are signs of caution in Clinton's world. Trump's decision to hold a pre-debate press conference with women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual impropriety in the past shocked many of Hillary Clinton's aides. They said the move didn't intimidate Clinton, but there is an acknowledgment inside Clinton's campaign that if the wheels completely come off Trump's operation, the attacks could grow even more personal.
    "This was supposed to be his big moment," Palmieri told reporters. "His threat, he followed through and it had no effect, so I don't know what he is going to do as an encore."

    Frustration among establishment Republicans

    The St. Louis debate underscored the long-running frustration among establishment Republicans that Trump has made no real effort to moderate his tone in a fashion that would reassure and win over independents and swing voters in the blue states that he must flip to win the White House.
    The bar for Trump was undeniably low Sunday night. But unlike the first debate, he did successfully launch attacks on Hillary Clinton's record.
    Still, they were attacks designed to rev up the conservative base: criticizing her handling of the Benghazi attack, excoriating her judgment in using a private email server, and attempting to shift the spotlight on to past troubles within her marriage.
    He thrilled his supporters by asserting that if he were President, he'd appoint a special prosecutor to look into her "situation," and throw her in jail -- immediately drawing Twitter comparisons to a dictator of a banana republic.
    Kellyanne Conway, Trump's campaign manager, hailed the debate as a victory and insisted the Trump campaign would welcome back any Republican who had rescinded his or her endorsement.
    "We hope what they saw on display last night was somebody willing to take the case to Hillary Clinton," Conway said on "CBS This Morning." "If those members can live with giving the next three or four Supreme Court justices over to Hillary Clinton, they should think about that."

    Winning back women

    Speculation before the debate had centered on how Trump might try to win back women offended by his assertion on the 2005 tape that his fame gave him license to grope and kiss women he had just met.
    Trump apologized during the debate, and when pressed by debate moderator and CNN Anchor Anderson Cooper, Trump said he had never made unwanted sexual advances on women.
    But rather than appealing to women with thoughtful words of contrition or an explanation of how he had changed, Trump again merely dismissed his 2005 comments about women as "locker room banter," before veering incoherently into a tangent about ISIS and beheadings around the world.
    That missed opportunity to reach out to voters disgusted by the tape was only amplified by the spectacle that Trump staged before the debate -- parading out three women who had previously accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct in the 1990s, in an attempt to unnerve his opponent. Several Republican strategists and donors said they cringed as they watched the bizarre scene play out as a prelude to the debate.
    It remains to be seen how voters will greet Trump's strategy of trying to shift the conversation to Bill Clinton's past, and how they will react to his fierce attacks on Clinton, who sometimes fares better among female voters when she is viewed as a victim.
    With less than a month until Election Day, Trump has significant ground to make up.