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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Donald Trump may have done just enough in Sunday’s presidential debate to keep his leaky presidential campaign afloat - and that may have put Republicans considering abandoning him in an even tougher position.
Had Trump imploded, the flow of lawmakers and party luminaries who deserted him at the weekend over lewd comments he made about women on a videotape likely would have become a torrent, increasing demands for him to drop out of the race.
But that didn't happen. Now, Republicans who have seen their party torn apart by Trump's candidacy are once again faced with a familiar dilemma: Publicly abandon a badly wounded candidate who is endangering closely contested congressional races, or stand behind him in the dimming hope that he can still win them the White House.
The Manhattan real-estate mogul delivered a feistier and more disciplined performance than at the first debate, hammering his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton on her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, and again raising decades-old accusations of sexual misconduct against her husband Bill Clinton.
That likely endeared him to the rowdy supporters who have packed arenas across the country for more than a year while perhaps doing little to reel in the more moderate voters in swing states that his campaign will need to defeat Clinton in the Nov. 8 election.
“His no-holds barred approach to Hillary tonight is what conservatives have wanted to see out of a candidate since Bill Clinton was in office,” said Craig Robinson, former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. “The Republican base and talk radio will love this performance.”
But the party is still hitched to a deeply flawed candidate who has especially struggled with women, college-educated, and suburban voters. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed close to 20 percent of Americans were still undecided on which candidate to support. Sixty percent of those were women.
A poll taken by CNN immediately following the debate showed Republicans have reason to be anxious. Viewers said Clinton had beaten Trump in the encounter, 57 percent to 34 percent.
The furore over the 2005 videotape, in which Trump bragged in vulgar terms about groping and trying to seduce women, led dozens of lawmakers to denounce him, including Arizona Senator John McCain. Their condemnation plunged the party into its worst crisis since the resignation of President Richard Nixon, a Republican, in 1974.
The House Republican Conference, a body comprised of the almost 250 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, was set to meet on Monday to discuss the foundering Trump campaign, a House leadership aide said. House Speaker Paul Ryan pointedly disinvited Trump for a joint appearance in Wisconsin that had been scheduled for Saturday following publication of the tape.
All but six of the 40 Republican officeholders whose races are considered competitive in the election have condemned Trump’s comments in the video, although only three members of that group have called for him to drop out.
On Monday, Trump's running mate, Indiana governor and former congressman Mike Pence, told Fox News he would not be on the call because of scheduled campaign events but would be happy to talk to Republican leaders separately.
"I like our chances come November the 8th," Pence said.
Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway played down the criticism, saying she hoped there would be an effort to regain their support but that it was not Trump's burden to bear.
"We welcome them back. We would love their support. But you know what? We have a lot of their voters' support," she told MSNBC on Monday. "We're taking the case directly to the voters."
Since the release of the video, the party's governing body, the Republican National Committee, has offered no guidance to local party officials on how to handle questions about it.
“There hasn’t been one email or one phone call or anything as to what the guidance is from the RNC going forward,” said an RNC official who asked to remain unidentified.
The tape intensified talk in Republican circles about diverting funds from Trump to prop up House and Senate candidates who might find themselves in newfound jeopardy because of the backlash.
“It’s well past time to cut all ties with Trump and focus on preserving the Republican Congress and down ballot offices. Immediately,” said John Weaver, a veteran Republican strategist.
Republican officials have another worry: that Trump's unpopularity may lead many Republican voters to stay at home on Election Day.
Against this backdrop of panic and condemnation, Trump on Sunday sought to rally the party's base with a fresh barrage of provocative attacks on Clinton that will give the media something other than the tape to talk about.
He offered a blistering critique of her handling of foreign policy while she was the country's chief diplomat and brought his rally cry for her to be jailed to the debate stage. He also carried out a threat to make an issue of her husband's sexual history.
In doing so, Trump may have stopped the bleeding, but he did nothing to stop the worrying.
Reporting by James Oliphant, Amanda Becker, Emily Flitter, Ginger Gibson, Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Mohammad Zargham; Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Ross Colvin, Bernadette Baum and Frances Kerry