Donald Trump’s tough week could cost him in swing states, and he’s running out of time to recover
Debora Matthews, a 64-year-old Republican, loaded plastic grocery bags into her sport utility vehicle one day this week, down the road from where Donald Trump was entertaining a crowd at a high school auditorium. Matthews shook her head in disgust at the campaign, unable to help her 18-year-old daughter figure out whom to vote for, and considering a Democrat for president for the first time in her own life.
“His mouth is digging a hole for himself that he’s falling into,” Matthews said of Trump. “It’s kind of scary. … You can’t be that way when you’re handling the lives of the people in our country.”
If Trump recovers from one of his worst weeks as a candidate, he will need to cement, rather than repel, voters like Matthews in swing states like Virginia.
Interviews with dozens of voters here and in Arizona, another battleground, suggest that many of Trump’s core supporters remain locked in and are willing to ignore, forgive or defend the candidate’s statements. But Trump may be losing a chance to close the deal or make gains with those who are less committed during a crucial phase of the campaign. The small percentage of voters who have not made up their minds in presidential elections often begin forming stronger opinions during and after the two party conventions, the second of which concluded last week.
A Trump comeback probably won’t begin with Matthews.
She worries about immigration enforcement, believes the country needs change and was hoping to find a reason to support Trump. But the stay-at-home mom and wife of a military man said Trump’s insults last weekend directed at the parents of U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who died serving in Iraq, likely sealed her opposition.
“When someone died protecting their country, that is the ultimate. And to not respect that is terrible,” Matthews said of Khan. “I know he doesn’t know a lot about that type of life. But he shouldn’t be talking about it.”
Trump’s battle is hardly lost, though. Many voters loathe Clinton and say they could never bring themselves to choose her.
And even as Trump reopened fissures with top elected Republicans this week, his bond with disaffected voters has proved more resilient after past flare-ups.
“Stubborn bastards get things done, and we need things done,” said Brad O’Neill, 52, of Phoenix.
Even those upset with Trump’s attacks on Khan’s parents believed that other recent controversies, such as his public invitation last week to Russia to find and release Clinton’s deleted emails, were overblown and misinterpreted by Democrats and the media.
“I’ve come to expect these things from Trump,” said Carrington Gupte, 25, of Phoenix. “He’s a loose cannon, he suspects everyone is a fraud and everything is rigged. While I don’t support his statements about the Khan family, it does not affect my view of him as a presidential candidate.”
Outside Trump’s rally in the Virginia high school, the support was even more full-throated. Men, women and children with “Hillary for Prison” T-shirts and “Make America Great Again” hats stood hours in a line snaking around the school, where the gym quickly filled to capacity.
A few said they had not heard much about Trump’s insults of the Khan family. Others complained that Trump had been subject to a double standard, given that Pat Smith, who lost her son in the attack in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 had said Clinton lied to her face about the cause of his death.
After Khizr Khan denounced Trump at the Democratic National Convention, Trump said Khan had no right to question him, suggested that Khizr’s wife did not speak because she is Muslim, and compared his own career as a business owner to their sacrifice as a military family.
Loree Thompson, who brought her 13-year-old son to the rally, echoed a defense popular among Trump supporters, the unsubstantiated claim that the Khan family had been paid by Democrats.
“Does his mouth sometimes get him in trouble?” she said of Trump. “Hillary, she can say it perfectly. What does that mean? What is she doing for us?”
But even among the faithful, there were signs of concern. Lou Forbrich, a retiree from Maryland, said he had been a Trump supporter since the businessman announced his presidential run last year, but he was having doubts.
“It’s not one straw that’s going to break the camel’s back. It’s any number of straws,” he said. “If he’s going to get people to his side, he can’t say what he’s saying and distance himself from the rest of the population.”
Forbrich said he would not support Clinton — “Hell no!” — but could nonetheless withhold support from Trump.
Once his rally began inside the auditorium, Trump sounded confident that he would win over skeptics like Forbrich, using characteristically brash language.
“Even if you can’t stand Donald Trump, you think Donald Trump is the worst, you’re going to vote for me,” he said. “You know why? Justices of the Supreme Court.”
He warned that Clinton could pick five “super-libs,” shifting the balance of power for decades. The argument could certainly hold sway among conservative voters. It’s been a top talking point for elected Republicans who have other policy disagreements with Trump.
But that approach probably won’t be effective with Nancy Smith, a teacher who was renting movies with her husband, Joe, a retired Secret Service agent, Tuesday afternoon near their home here. They can’t commit to either candidate — believing Trump is too volatile and Clinton a liar.
“He’s crazy, and I really can’t stand her,” said Nancy Smith, who voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Trump’s rhetoric has become too ugly for Joe, who supported the Republican nominees in the last two elections.
“For somebody who’s trying to unite people,” he said of Trump, “he’s saying some things that are divisive.”
Bierman reported from Ashburn and Duara from Phoenix.
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