JOHNSTOWN, PA., /DULUTH, MN (Reuters) – U.S. presidential debate organizers vowed on Wednesday to change the rules to rein in unruly behavior after President Donald Trump repeatedly interrupted rival Joe Biden and the moderator in the candidates’ taunt-filled initial prime-time encounter.
Biden suggested a mute button might help and Trump complained the Commission on Presidential Debates was siding with the Democrats in the aftermath of Tuesday’s debate in Cleveland.
The 90-minute face-off triggered widespread criticism of Trump and, to a lesser extent, Biden. The Republican president repeatedly bullied Biden and questioned his intelligence, while the Democratic nominee called Trump a racist, a liar and the worst president ever.
Biden’s campaign raised nearly $10 million during the debate, a campaign aide said, adding to the Democrat’s financial advantage with five weeks to go until the Nov. 3 election.
The former vice president has held a modest but steady lead in national voter surveys for months, although opinion polls in the battleground states that traditionally decide elections show a closer contest.
Biden went on a day-long whistle-stop train tour through two tops critical to his election, Ohio and Pennsylvania, concluding the day in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, with remarks attacking Trump for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
In Alliance, Ohio, Biden urged Americans to vote for him in large numbers to eliminate any possibility of Trump trying to stay in the White House if he lost the election.
Trump did not commit at the debate to accepting the election result, reasserting unfounded complaints that an increase in mail-in ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic would lead to widespread voting fraud.
“The president will step down. The American people will not stand for it. No agency would stand for that happening,” Biden said on a campaign stop.
Also on Wednesday, Trump attempted to distance himself from the right-wing “Proud Boys” group after declining to denounce white supremacists during the debate.
“I don’t know who the Proud Boys are. I mean, you’ll have to give me a definition, because I really don’t know who they are. I can only say they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work,” he told reporters at the White House.
The Proud Boys describes itself as a club of “Western chauvinists” but has been categorized as a hate group by the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center.
TURNING OFF THE MICROPHONE?
The debates commission said it would adopt changes to allow for a “more orderly discussion,” with the next debate scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami. There was immediate speculation that this could include a mute button to limit interruptions.
The Trump campaign accused the organization of “moving the goalposts and changing the rules in the middle of the game.”
Trump also was critical of the debate’s moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who spent much of the debate trying to restore order.
“Chris had a tough night,” Trump posted on Wednesday morning on Twitter, calling the debate a “two on one” fight.
“Never forget they are coming after me because I am fighting for you,” Trump told thousands of cheering supporters at a rally outside an airport hangar in Duluth, Minnesota.
Biden said on Wednesday he hoped organizers of future debates would be able to turn off the microphone of the candidate who is not speaking.
“It was a national embarrassment,” Biden said of the debate and Trump’s performance. “I am not going to speculate what happens at the second or third debate.”
The debate commission defended Wallace, thanking him “for the professionalism and skill he brought to last night’s debate” and promising “additional tools to maintain order.”
The chaotic debate appeared unlikely to significantly alter the campaign’s dynamics.
An estimated 73.1 million people tuned in to the chaotic face-off on Tuesday night across 16 networks, down from the 84 million who watched the first debate between Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Biden, 77, was on a train tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania, both “Rust Belt” battleground states. The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll of Pennsylvania gave Biden a slight advantage there.
Trump, 74, was in Minnesota – one of the few states his campaign is targeting that voted Democratic in 2016 – for a fundraiser before a Wednesday evening rally in Duluth.
(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw in Ohio, Alexandra Alper in Minnesota, Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey, and Susan Heavey, David Morgan and Lisa Lambert in Washington; Writing by Alistair Bell and Steve Holland; Editing by Scott Malone, Howard Goller and Peter Cooney)