Trump could do no better than clumsily defend himself for his 11-year-old comments, but after persistent questioning, he did successfully turn many voters' attention to Hillary Clinton's harsh comments about Bill Clinton's sexual assault and rape accusers. Still, that parry did not raise Trump's character. It only dragged Clinton down with him.
And that will be enough to keep this race close right up to Election Day. That is how politics works: You don't need to scrub your reputation clean to win. You just need to clear the bar. That's it. And Trump did it at the debate.
Sure, a number of polls for the next week or so are likely to show Clinton extending her lead. But the trend of Clinton gaining a clear lead and then losing it has 29 more days to play itself out again, and it will.
Character never has really counted in politics. It clearly didn't count when the bulk of American voters elected Bill Clinton president even when his lurid sexual past was widely reported and discussed during both of his presidential campaigns. His 1996 opponent, Republican Bob Dole, famously used the ill-fated "character counts" campaign slogan to skewer Clinton throughout that contest. Dole ultimately lost.
And character didn't count to the bulk of the American people a couple of years later when it became public knowledge that President Clinton couldn't temper his sexual impropriety and actually did conduct an affair literally in the Oval Office with a woman young enough to be his daughter. Remember how the American people responded to that? Most of them opposed Clinton's subsequent impeachment and he left office with higher popularity ratings than ever.
Like Bill Clinton, Trump's character assassination is largely his own doing. He's been undisciplined with his comments throughout the campaign. And despite his very public life in the 30 years before he ran, he clearly wasn't very cautious with his mouth during that time either. But if character really counted to the voters, Trump never would have stood a chance in the GOP primaries that he won going away.
Based on the evidence we have of just Bill Clinton and Trump alone, we know lurid sexual comments and even certain lurid and improper sexual acts are not enough to end your political career. It's further evidenced by the fact that so many of the same people who defended Bill Clinton's actions 20 years ago are now acting sanctimoniously outraged by Trump's taped comments. And many of the same people defending or ignoring Trump's comments were supposedly outraged by Bill Clinton's actions. The number one byproduct of politics is hypocrisy. And in a nation filled with political hypocrites, Donald Trump can run for — and win — the White House.
So what happens now?
Get ready for more Trump the pit bull that we saw on Sunday night. For some reason, when voters see Trump angrily fighting for himself, many of them take it be an example of how he'll fight for them. It's a scenario that helped then-candidate George H.W. Bush in 1988 when he surprisingly took a nasty tone defending himself in an interview with then-CBS anchor Dan Rather. It's a scenario that helped then-President Bill Clinton when he angrily showed more resolve defending himself in the Monica Lewinsky scandal than he did in any other issue in his presidency. And it's a scenario that's kept the Trump campaign alive through so many controversies so far this election season. When Trump praised Hillary Clinton in the debate for being a fighter, he was also mentioning something a lot people think about him.
Trump's littany of attacks on Hillary Clinton will likely go from just emails, Benghazi, and Obamacare to include a lot more mentions of people like Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey. He will play up as many new revelations from the Wikileaks releases of the Clinton and Democratic National Committee emails as they come out.
As long as Clinton repeats her supposed outrage and shock over the "Access Hollywood" tapes, expect Trump to come back with his supposed outrage over Clinton's past conduct. The experts and the top pundits will say that's a losing strategy, but if the voters don't see Trump fighting back hard they will surely abandon him. Pundits can't hear that appeal the same way humans can't hear a dog whistle.
When Trump finally does get back to his secure borders — lower tax messages — it probably won't matter anyway. How strongly and effectively Trump fights back against this leaked tape controversy is exactly how he'll be judged by any of the remaining undecided voters out there. More likely, those voters aren't undecided about whom they basically support as much as they're not sure they'll actually show up at the polls on Nov. 9.
Bill and Hilary Clinton never fought harder for anyone more than themselves during their crisis time in the White House. Trump is following their lead. It worked for them in 1999, and it's a good bet it will at least keep Trump viable for one more month.