COMMENT

We live in strange days.

The Republican presidential nominee is at war with his party, less than a month out from the election.

For all the talk among pundits yesterday of Donald Trump's second debate performance 'staunching his wounds' it may just be a Band-Aid.

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After the Republican elite's stampede from Trump over the past days, the party's most senior official, Speaker Paul Ryan, says he will not campaign with or defend the nominee.

In further bad news, an NBC/WSJ poll today, conducted after the Access Hollywood tape scandal broke but before yesterday's debate, had Democrat Hillary Clinton leading Trump by 52 per cent to 38 per cent in a two-way contest and by 46 per cent to 35 per cent with third-party candidates.

Poll statistician Nate Cohn of the New York Times tweeted: "IDK whether Trump is down double digits. But a GOP revolt can make that happen".

Cohn said that in the debate: "Trump didn't worsen his challenge, but didn't change the direction of the race that has broken towards Clinton".

Ryan said he would try to make sure that if Clinton wins, she does not get a "blank cheque" - a Democrat-controlled Congress.

The calculation here is simple: Ryan is giving up the outer walls to protect the inner keep.

The reason why the Republicans have maintained power to influence and obstruct throughout a two-term Democrat presidency is their controlling presence in Congress.

In 2014 the party gained full control of both houses by winning the Senate. In the House of Representatives Republicans have 247 seats, the most since 1931.

With the prospect becoming greater by the day of Trump losing the presidential election to Clinton, the necessity to halt the contagion threatening Republican standing in Congress is key to the party.

As much as the idea of dropping Trump as nominee is really a fantasy, establishment Republicans don't want their entire house to go down in flames.

Trump's tweeted response to the Speaker's move: "Paul Ryan should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee"

The Washington Post's Robert Costa reported: "In calls this morning, many Rs privately want to defect from Trump. But they say the debate gave them pause since he roused their base."

In another tweet he added: "Trump circle gloating. Privately mocking elected Rs who are agonising. One laughed and said, 'We don't care'."

Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo wrote about the dilemma Trump poses for the party, noting: "It's simple: they can't drop him because he owns their voters."

Trump threw all he had at Clinton in the second debate - "going nuclear" as an ally had advised beforehand. It was all there in the mix: Bill Clinton's affairs, Clinton's emails, Wall Street speeches, birtherism, foreign policy problems.

Yet Clinton again won the post-debate CNN poll and was able to maintain her front-runner's advantage. What does Trump have in the tank for the third debate on October 20?

Today, Clinton's national poll average lead at RealClearPolitics.com stands at 5.8 per cent compared to 4.6 yesterday. Her betting odds to win are at 84 per cent to Trump's 16 per cent.

Should Trump lose in November, the fallout of Trumpism will rage in the party for a long time.

Could the party elite and grassroots be further apart? How does the party reconcile Trump's base with the party's traditional support of university-educated and female voters, who are deserting this time?

Ryan has shifted uneasily between officially supporting his nominee, holding Trump at arm's length and kicking the businessman when he can.

Ryan was one of many senior officials who attacked recorded Trump comments from Access Hollywood in 2005 in which the businessman boasted about sexually assaulting women. Reuters reports that nearly half of all the 332 incumbent Republican senators, congressmen and women and governors have condemned Trump's remarks.

Ryan may be effectively wiping his hands of Trump and admitting he thinks the businessman is toast, but that stain is not easily shifted. So many Republican stars buckled under the pressure to embrace Trump - including former opponents Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

Of senior Republican politicians, former presidential candidate Ohio Governor John Kasich was best able to keep his hands clean, refusing to endorse Trump and staying away from the party's convention in his own state.

The question of whether a candidate supported the Iraq war at its beginning has haunted the Democratic Party for four presidential election cycles.

Should the Donald fall, that will be replaced by a new question among Republicans: Did you pass or fail the Trump test?

There will be a lot of politicians having trouble washing that blondy, orangey colour from their hands.