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Analysis: Trump Tries Reframing Poor 2016 Debate Performance at Florida Rally

Donald Trump, all day Tuesday, maintained he won a debate that most pundits, and many polls, said he lost.
Image: Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Campaigns In Florida Day After First Debate
Donald Trump speaks to a large group of supporters at a Florida airport hanger the day after his first debate with Hillary Clinton on September 27, 2016 in Melbourne, Florida.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Fla. — Donald Trump, all day Tuesday, maintained he won a debate that most pundits, and many polls, said he lost.

“Last night was very exciting, and nearly every single poll had us winning against Hillary Clinton, big league,” he said.

A number of online polls showed him to be the winner, but there’s some question over how accurate they were and whether they may have been manipulated by Trump supporters. For all his public bluster, Trump seemed aware of this fact, spending nearly the entire rally re-litigating the debate, this time with the help of a teleprompter.

“For 90 minutes ... I watched her. She was stuck in the past. For 90 minutes, on issue after issue Hillary Clinton defended the terrible status quo, while I laid out our plan, all of us together, to bring jobs, security and prosperity back to the American people,” he said, sticking to his prepared text.

Later, veering off, Trump explained away a performance even Republicans said was reactive and lacking substance as a planned strategy of “holding back.”

“I didn’t want to do anything to embarass her,” he said.

Trump also repeated a number of falsehoods from the debate, asking the crowd: “Does everybody believe me, I was against going to Iraq?” though his initial support is well-documented; and “I explained last night stop and frisk was constitutional,” he said, though it was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2013.

Related: What You Missed From the First Presidential Debate

The rally seemed geared entirely towards reframing the debate as a win. “We won almost every single poll,” Trump said again, midway through his speech. “That was a great honor.”

Trump supporters saw flaws

But his supporters at the rally painted a far less rosy picture of his performance, with most acknowledging it wasn’t his best. At the very least, the nominee could’ve been more prepared — at worst, he needlessly lost his cool and failed to hit Clinton hard enough to make a dent.

“He had a lot of missed opportunities, where he really could’ve gotten on Hillary Clinton for the email scandal and for Benghazi,” said Karin Sells, a sales assistant at a financial firm. “I don’t think he totally blew it, but he really does have to go after her stronger.”

A number of supporters acknowledged that Trump’s failure to keep his cool negatively impacted him on the stage.

Asked what Trump should do differently at the next debate, Jean Detwiler, an Air Force veteran, said the candidate should be more aware of “the way he carries himself when he’s supposedly off-camera, which he really isn’t.”

“He shows too many feelings in his face,” Detwiler said.

He also said Trump “should just wait his turn. I mean he’s got plenty of ammunition, he doesn’t have to break into the conversation.”

Related: Russian Papers Call Debate Win for Clinton

For a candidate who can typically do no wrong among the ardent followers that pack his rallies nationwide, Trump’s debate performance marked a rare incident where his fans acknowledged flaws in their candidate. Throughout the course of the campaign, Trump’s supporters have easily explained away everything from his attack on Sen. John McCain for being a POW to his sexist comments on and off the stump, and his support has stayed steady.

It’s unlikely the debate performance will lose him any fans among the diehards crowding a hot and sticky airplane hangar in Florida Tuesday night, or at any of the other rallies that fans wait hours to attend.

“He impressed me," Sharlene Dutton, a Florida resident, said of Trump’s performance. “He made it so easy for me to understand."

But the overall skeptical reaction does hint at the possible toll another poor debate performance could take on Trump. If his diehard supporters can find fault in their candidate as a result, it’s not hard to see undecided voters tuning him out entirely.

Indeed, some of Trump’s fans at his rally Tuesday night seemed to uneasily acknowledge the possibility.

And Barbara Jackson, a retiree from Jensen Beach, Fla., said she “hoped” Trump’s debate performance hadn’t hurt him with undecideds — but acknowledged the possibility.

“I think undecided voters are really questionable right now, and every move is important,” she said.

But ever the Trump supporter, she was certain her candidate would figure it out in the end.

“I think in the second debate he’ll do much better,” she said.