Suburban women find little to like in Donald Trump’s debate performance

New York Times News Service

WEST CHESTER, Pa. — Donald Trump badly needed to make an impression on women like Nancy Groux in Monday’s presidential debate. She is an undecided Republican who hungers for change in Washington and thinks business experience would be an asset in the Oval Office.

In the light of Tuesday morning, it was clear that he had made an impression — but not a good one.

Waiting here for a dress shop to open, Groux, 60, said that she thought that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, had been “presidential” in the debate, but that Trump, the Republican nominee, had come across like a “bull in a china closet.”

“I truly want to like him,” she said. “I keep looking for something in him. But I can’t have my children grow up and look at him as someone to respect.”

The first of three scheduled presidential debates was the talk of suburban West Chester on Tuesday, and there was much to chew over between bites of pastry and sips of coffee on Church Street: Trump’s demeanor, loudly talking over Clinton and hectoring her with interruptions; her smirks and grim stares as she looked at Trump; and Clinton’s intense denunciation of Trump over his denigration of women, after he questioned her “stamina” in the debate’s final moments.

Groux, who works at a flower shop in West Chester, faulted Trump for refusing to release his taxes, and for what she called a shallowness on policy that suggested an unwillingness to consult experts.

“He doesn’t listen,” Groux said. “I’m afraid he would just make his own decisions and not listen to anyone else’s — and I don’t think that’s a way to have a country.”

Sarah Kelly and Dan Cullen watch the debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at Gullifty's bar in Rosemont, Pa., Sept. 26, 2016. "I'm feeling kind of proud of Hillary," said Kelly, a graduate student at Villanova University. "Every time she gave a smile, kind of a big one, made me feel confident." (Mark Makela/The New York Times)

  GulliftyÕs    With the support of educated voters, especially women, in the counties surrounding Philadelphia seen as the key to carrying the state, dozens of undecided women interviewed Tuesday consistently said Trump had not swayed them. (Mark Makela/The New York Times)

ROSEMONT, PA - September 26, 2016.  Sarah Kelley, 24, and Dan Cullen, 33, attended a watch party for the first Presidential Debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump at Gullifty's Restaurant in Rosemont, PA on September 26, 2016.  CREDIT: Mark Makela for The New York Times     NYTDEBATE                                NYTCREDIT: Mark Makela for The New York Times

Repelled: This year, as in past elections, the key to carrying Pennsylvania is expected to be winning the trove of educated voters, especially women, in the counties surrounding Philadelphia. Here in Chester County, Mitt Romney defeated President Barack Obama in 2012 by less than 1 percentage point; Obama won nearby Bucks County by a margin nearly as close.

In several dozen interviews on Tuesday, undecided women here consistently said that Trump had failed to win them over, and that in several cases he had repelled them.

“The faces he made — he rolled his eyes!” said Janet Melton, who bought a cake and doughnuts at Yori’s Bakery, where a blackboard on the sidewalk advertised “Pumpkin Everything.” “He doesn’t come across as being very professional to me.”

Melton, a registered Republican who manages a team of software engineers, said that if the election were today, Clinton — whom she, too, called “so much more presidential” — would get her vote. That alone was a milestone, she added: “I come from a long line of Republican family members who will turn over in their graves.”

Trump, who was rising in national polls before the debate, has also narrowed the gap in important battleground states. A CNN/ORC poll released Monday showed him running about even with Clinton among likely voters in Pennsylvania, a state Democrats regard as a blue wall barricading Trump’s path to the White House.

'He's rough': But even among Republican and independent women who do not support Clinton, Trump’s debate performance — frequently interjecting “wrong” while displaying a thin command of policy details — failed to allay doubts.

“I’d rather have almost anybody in there except Hillary,” said Debbie Windle, 63, an office administrator from Glenmoore. “I didn’t like her last night. I thought she was smug. She thought she was better and was putting him down.

“But I look at Donald Trump, and I think, oh my God, he’s rough,” she added. “He could cause us a lot of damage.” Windle said she was considering not voting.

And Diana Martens, 51, of Jeffersonville, a Republican who works at a pharmaceutical company, said she might write in a candidate.

“Hillary, I’m not a big fan of hers,” she said. But she said many of Trump’s answers lacked details or substance.

“I don’t think he has the experience,” she said. “His behavior is unpresidential, unkind, un-everything.”

Leaning his way: Not everyone thought Trump appeared unprepared for the White House.

Kelly McAnally, center, is among those who watched the debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in Rosemont, Pa., Sept. 26, 2016. With the support of educated voters, especially women, in the counties surrounding Philadelphia seen as the key to carrying the state, dozens of undecided women interviewed Tuesday consistently said Trump had not swayed them. (Mark Makela/The New York Times)

Barb Haag, a retired teacher of the emotionally disturbed, said Trump’s interruptions did not bother her.

“Kids interrupt you all the time if they have a point to make,” she said.

“His manner of speaking was thorough, to the point; I liked the way he sounded,” said Haag, 69, who said she was leaning toward voting for Trump.

But others who sounded somewhat sympathetic toward Trump expressed disappointment at the debate’s outcome. One woman in her 50s, who said she was a registered independent but refused to give her name, took out her phone to display a text message she had sent her husband, she said, at the moment Trump had lost her: when he dodged responsibility for stoking the so-called birther movement that questioned whether Obama was American-born.

“I had hoped he’d be smarter and better prepared,” the text message read. “It’s not like he didn’t know that birther thing would come up. He thought he could wing this.”

Relief: Democrats here expressed great relief, saying they had taken note of Trump’s rise in the polls and worried that he might unleash one of his trademark name-calling, slashing attacks.

“I was nervous before the debate because I thought it could have gone much worse,” said Sarah Kelly, a graduate student at Villanova University, in Radnor Township. “I’m feeling kind of proud of Hillary. Every time she gave a smile, kind of a big one, made me feel confident.”

But Trump’s confirmed supporters found reason to cheer, too. “I’m going to go with Donald because he didn’t lose much ground,” said Brian Lance, 30, an accountant, who watched the debate in a sports bar in Rosemont. “I thought Hillary was a little crass.”

Midway through the debate, Betsy Gehlot, a Republican watching in the same bar, Gullifty’s, complained that Trump kept talking over Clinton.

“He’s doing all the talking,” said Gehlot, who works in a boys’ private school. “He’s kind of bullying her, I think.”

The next morning, Bob and Mary Ann Jann were still digesting the debate over breakfast at Mil-Lee’s Diner in Yardley, Pennsylvania. Bob Jann, a psychologist, said he thought Clinton had won “hands down.” He pointed to “Donald’s dark view of America, and the fact that he couldn’t control his mouth and couldn’t follow the rules of the debate.”

What stuck with Mary Ann Jann — and not out of admiration, either — was the way Trump had answered Clinton’s attacks about his having failed to pay vendors to his businesses.

“His way of succeeding in business did not seem to have helped out the people who worked for him,” she said.

Disrespect: But nothing in the debate seemed to dismay Republican women more than when Clinton accused Trump of disrespecting women.

Kim Gray, a Trump supporter, said she cringed when Clinton accused him of calling a former Miss Universe “Miss Piggy” because she gained weight and “Miss Housekeeping” because she was Latina.

“That is embarrassing,” Gray, an office manager, said as she parked outside the West Chester post office. “I have a daughter. I have a son who’d never speak like that.”

Gray said she still planned to vote for Trump, however, because of his business success and his support for law enforcement.

“He had a horrible night,” she acknowledged, dropping her voice and nearly blushing on Trump’s behalf.