Republicans are distancing themselves from Donald Trump as his candidacy seems to be threatened

Standing more alone.
Standing more alone.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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Leading Republicans began to pull away from Donald Trump in the hours after a tape surfaced in which he uses extremely graphic language to describe how a man in his position can have his way with women when he wants. After having easily fended off numerous scrapes with public sensibility, this time his candidacy seems under challenge.

Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, disinvited Trump from a campaign event in Wisconsin tomorrow, Oct. 8. “I am sickened by what I heard today,” Ryan said in a statement. And Republican Utah governor Gary Herbert withdrew his support from Trump, although he did not say he will support Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.

With election day a full month away, no one can say with certainty how Trump’s latest scandal will affect his candidacy—and Herbert is an outlier among Republicans so far in fully withdrawing his endorsement. But Trump’s odds of winning the Oct. 9 presidential debate just dropped and his chances of using that to broaden his voter base are further hobbled.

Clinton is unlikely to ignore the 2005 tape in which he juxtaposes the phrases “grab them by the pussy” and “when you’re a star, they let you do it” when they meet for their second debate (he is broadly seen as having lost their first encounter, held on Sept. 29). Neither will the tough-minded moderators, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz, not to mention a studio audience filled with self-identified undecided voters, who get to ask half the questions.

As a result, Trump will begin the debate with a distinct handicap from which it will be hard to recover. Even if he abjectly apologizes, Clinton is likely to appear above the fray against an opponent in the muck. And if he is perceived to be the loser, after already being the object of much criticism in the first debate, his low poll numbers may harden and be difficult to reverse.

The trouble stems from a tape that surfaced in an NBC archive in which Trump and Billy Bush, a cousin of former president George W. Bush, discuss having their way with women. Trump describes making an unsuccessful play for an unidentified married woman. Trump also says, “You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”

No one can state objectively whether anything in the video is worse than comments Trump has already gotten away with, including sexual and racial innuendo. But, with his poll numbers already plunging over the last few days, leading Republicans for the first time seemed to perceive a signal to create a distance from themselves and Trump. At fivethirtyeight.com, Clinton is currently rated with a 76.6% chance of winning on Nov. 8, to just 23.4% for Trump.

In addition to Ryan and Herbert, Mike Pence, Trump’s vice presidential running mate, was said to be ”beside himself” and his wife “furious” about Trump’s remarks on the tape. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, also denounced the language in the tape. A string of other Republicans, including some in tight races for re-election, condemned the tape as well.

Given the public’s demonstrated patience for Trump transgressions of seemingly uncrossable moral barriers, it’s unclear whether he will suffer lasting political damage from his latest scandal. But the mounting criticism from the Republican leadership suggests this breach of could be one that fatally wounds his campaign for the White House.

Update: Early today, Trump issued a taped statement in which he apologized for his remarks, but went on to defiantly attack Clinton and her husband over his own infidelities and treatment of women. He suggested the issues would be discussed at the second presidential debate tomorrow. Here is how Trump closes his statement: “I’ve said some foolish things, but there is a big difference between words and actions. Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims. We will discuss this more in the coming days. See you at the debate on Sunday.”