US president’s refusal to condemn right-wing extremists unsettles allies, who fear it will undercut Republicans seeking re-election

Rival Joe Biden blasts ‘dog whistle to white supremacy’ while Trump claims not to know who Proud Boys are

Donald Trump’s volcanic debate performance put the president’s sympathy for white supremacists in the campaign spotlight on Wednesday, heightening a sense of menacing chaos in the campaign that threatens to undercut other Republicans up for re-election in a year that was already a challenge for the party.

The remarks unsettled Trump’s allies and gave his rival, Joe Biden, a springboard to return to the themes that propelled the former vice-president’s bid – a restoration of the nation’s character that had been degraded by political coarseness and racial animus.

“Last night I think was a wake-up call for all Americans,” Biden said during a campaign event in Alliance, Ohio – one of seven stops in a train tour on Wednesday through two key states.

He blasted Trump for his “dog whistle to white supremacy”, particularly Trump’s call for the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”.

Biden issued his own message to the extremist group: “Cease and desist.”

Trump expressed no morning-after regrets, tweeting Wednesday morning that the debate was “fun” even though it was “two on one,” claiming that moderator Chris Wallace teamed up with Biden against him.

Later, the president claimed he was unfamiliar with the Proud Boys, a right-wing vigilante group, and said they should step aside to let police regulate protests.

“They have to stand down and let law enforcement do their work,” Trump told reporters before departing the White House for a fundraiser and rally in Minnesota, after saying he did not know who the Proud Boys were.

Members of the group celebrated the president’s debate remark on social media.

As Trump’s comment dominated post-debate news coverage, Republicans expressed concern about how fallout from the chaotic debate and the way the campaign is shaping up could affect the party’s candidates up and down the ballot.

“It feels like 2018 all over again,” said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, referring to the midterm elections that delivered gigantic losses for the party and turned control of the House over to Democrats. That election “was a referendum on Donald Trump, and this year feels exactly the same way. Republicans don’t fare well in that kind of election environment”.

Trump spokesman Hogan Gidley defended Trump’s debate performance and insisted the president had actually condemned white supremacists.

“He said ‘sure’ three times,” Gidley said on CNN, referring to his response to questions about whether he would condemn supremacists. “The president does and he did call them out.”

But outside Trump’s staff, even many of his staunch supporters struggled to make sense of his comments and spin them in a favourable light.

“I think he misspoke, I think he should correct it,” said Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican senator. “If he doesn’t correct it, I guess he didn’t misspeak.”

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a Republican, said on CNN that “the Democrats owe a lot to Chris Wallace”, blaming the moderator for having asked the question that elicited Trump’s Proud Boys comment.

“He was asking the president to do something he knows the president doesn’t like to do, which is, say something bad about people who support him.”

The Trump campaign felt compelled to rehash in a video the times over the years that the president has condemned the Ku Klux Klan. “Here Are 7 Examples Of President Trump Condemning The KKK,” the campaign’s “Trump War Room” account tweeted.

But the president himself did not walk back his comment, criticising Wallace, instead, and retweeting comments from conservative backers attacking Biden.

The controversy echoed the blowback over Trump’s handling of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, three years ago, when he said there were “very fine people on both sides”. Biden said those comments spurred him to run for president, and now he is capitalising on a sequel to fuel his campaign in the closing weeks.

Trump’s aides have been hoping to reshape the final weeks of the campaign in terms Republicans think work to his advantage – as a choice between himself and Biden, whom he portrays as a tool of the Democratic Party’s extreme left wing.

The reaction to Tuesday night’s debate, however, appeared to lock in the current framework of the race – a referendum on Trump, which has clearly favoured the Democrats.

On network morning shows, a key source of information for swing voters who tend not to closely follow politics, Republicans had difficulty defending Trump.

On CBS’

, for example, former Republican Party chair Reince Priebus tried to avoid commenting on Trump’s remark about the Proud Boys, claiming he had not heard him say it.

“You’ll have to ask him,” Priebus said when host Gayle King asked if Trump would condemn white supremacists on Wednesday.

Even Brian Kilmeade, a Trump-friendly host on

, the president’s favourite television show, expressed sharp disappointment.

“Donald Trump ruined the biggest lay-up in the history of debates by not condemning white supremacists,” he said. “I don’t know if he didn’t hear it, but he’s gotta clarify that right away. That’s like, are you against evil? Why the president didn’t just knock it out of the park, I’m not sure.”

The aftermath of the debate could pose a threat not only to the president, who has trailed Biden for months, but also to Republicans up for re-election in swing states, such as Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who are already struggling to keep the backing of Trump supporters while distancing themselves enough from the president to woo swing voters.

The debate could also hurt Republican efforts to hold onto swing congressional districts in the nation’s suburbs.

“Many found the entire debate disturbing,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership PAC, a group that supports the dwindling band of Republican centrists in the House. “Our polling shows he damaged the brand in suburban areas,” she said.

As the post-debate commentary swirled, Biden embarked on a seven-stop train tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania, and underscored a theme he tried to get across in the din of Tuesday’s debate.

“Does your president understand at all what you’re going through?” he said. “Does he see you where you are and where you want to be? Does he care? Has he tried to walk in your shoes to understand what’s going on in your life?”

Trump plans a rally later in the day in Minnesota.

Analysts were puzzled by what Trump was trying to accomplish in the debate.

He needs to win over moderate Republicans and wavering independents to overcome Biden’s lead in polls. But instead he appears to have unnerved them.

Two public snap polls poll of debate viewers showed Biden winning the debate; 60 per cent to 28 per cent in a poll by CNN; a closer outcome, 48 per cent to 41 per cent, in one by CBS.

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