Republican senators tried to distance themselves from Donald Trump on Wednesday morning, following the US president’s aggressive debate performance and his refusal to condemn white supremacists.
In the first presidential debate on Tuesday night, Mr Trump repeatedly interrupted and spoke over Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger, in what quickly devolved into an ugly, acrimonious spectacle.
At one point, the president declined to condemn white supremacists, and instead addressed the Proud Boys, a far-right group, saying: “Stand back and stand by.”
Mr Trump on Wednesday rowed back the comments, saying: “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are . . . whoever they are, they need to stand down.” The president added that he had “always denounced any form” of white supremacy.
Mr Trump’s remarks came as Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, many of them facing tough re-election battles in November, expressed their disapproval.
Tim Scott, the Republican senator from South Carolina and the only black GOP member of the upper chamber, told reporters on Capitol Hill that he thought the president “misspoke”.
“I think he should correct it,” Mr Scott said. “If he doesn’t correct it I guess he didn’t misspeak.”
Republicans currently control the Senate, but recent opinion polls show their majority may be vulnerable, with incumbents such as Susan Collins from Maine and Martha McSally from Arizona trailing their challengers by significant margins.
Ms Collins, who trails her Democratic challenger Sarah Gideon by 6.5 points according to a Real Clear Politics average of recent polls, told reporters on Capitol Hill she did not think Tuesday’s debate was “helpful in educating the American people”.
The Maine senator said Mr Trump should “absolutely” condemn white supremacy, but said both the president and the former vice-president were to blame for Tuesday night’s discourse, saying: “I think that the interrupting on both sides, the name-calling, was very unbecoming.”
When asked if the president should have condemned white supremacists, Mitt Romney, the Republican senator from Utah, replied: “Of course.” Mr Romney, a former presidential candidate, broke with his party by voting for Mr Trump’s impeachment earlier this year.
“It was not a Lincoln-Douglas debate, that is for sure,” Mr Romney added, referring to a series of 19th-century debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
Others were more direct. Ben Sasse, the Republican senator from Nebraska, called the debate a “shit show”, while Lisa Murkowski from Alaska said it was “awful”. Shelley Capito, from West Virginia, said the night was “rough”.
Mike Rounds, the Republican senator from South Dakota, said the president “should have been very clear” about white supremacists. “He should have made it very clear that there is no room for people on the far-left or the far more far-right,” he added.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said the president’s performance risked alienating moderate voters, especially college-educated women in suburban areas, who are seen as a crucial voting bloc both in the presidential race and “down ballot” Senate and House contests.
“There is nothing that we saw last night that would have turned one female voter or one suburban voter from an undecided to Trump, or a ‘lean Biden’ to undecided,” Mr Heye said. “[The president’s] behaviour and . . . some of the things that he said . . . turn off those voters . . . if you are that Senate candidate or House candidate in a tough race, that just made your challenges even greater.”
Mr Heye, a veteran of North Carolina politics, pointed to Thom Tillis, the Republican incumbent senator in the southern state, as one lawmaker whose re-election attempt might be damaged by Mr Trump’s debate showing.
Mr Tillis is facing a formidable challenge from Democrat Cal Cunningham, who is leading by six points, according to a Real Clear Politics average of recent opinion polls.
“Suburban Raleigh, suburban Charlotte. None of that is going to go over well,” Mr Heye said, referring to the state’s two major metropolitan areas.
Mr Tillis said “white supremacy or any organisations that are antagonistic should be condemned 24/7”.
Even the president’s closest allies questioned whether Mr Trump had been too aggressive during Tuesday night’s debate.
Chris Christie, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who helped the president prepare for the debate, said on ABC News that Mr Trump had been “too hot” in his approach.
“You can come in and decide you want to be aggressive, and I think that was the right thing to be aggressive, but that was too hot,” Mr Christie said, adding: “With all the heat, you lose the light.”
Mr Trump nevertheless maintained he had delivered a strong debate performance, saying on Wednesday he had received “tremendous reviews”.
During the debate, moderator and Fox News presenter Chris Wallace asked Mr Trump to stick to the rules agreed to by both campaigns — namely that each candidate would have time to lay out his arguments, uninterrupted.
The Commission on Presidential Debates, a non-partisan group that organises the debates, said on Wednesday that “additional tools” were needed to “maintain order” in the remaining two face-offs.
The commission said it was “carefully considering the changes” and would announce them “shortly”.