WASHINGTON - Donald Trump's volcanic debate performance put the president's sympathy for white supremacists in the campaign spotlight Wednesday, heightening a sense of menacing chaos in the campaign that threatens to undercut other Republicans up for reelection in a year that was already a challenge for the GOP.
The remarks unsettled Trump's allies and gave his rival, Joe Biden, a springboard to return to the themes that propelled the former vice president's bid - a restoration of the nation's character that had been degraded by political coarseness and racial animus.
"Last night I think was a wake-up call for all Americans," Biden said during a campaign event in Alliance, Ohio - one of seven stops in a train tour Wednesday through two key states.
He blasted Trump for his "dog whistle to white supremacy," particularly Trump's call for the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by."
Biden issued his own message to the extremist group: "Cease and desist."
Trump expressed no morning-after regrets, tweeting Wednesday morning that the debate was "fun" even though it was "two on one," claiming that moderator Chris Wallace teamed up with Biden against him.
As Trump's comment dominated post-debate news coverage, Republicans expressed concern about how fallout from the chaotic debate and the way the campaign is shaping up could affect the party's candidates up and down the ballot.
"It feels like 2018 all over again," said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse, referring to the midterm elections that delivered gigantic losses for the party and turned control of the House over to Democrats. That election "was a referendum on Donald Trump, and this year feels exactly the same way. Republicans don't fare well in that kind of election environment."
Trump spokesman Hogan Gidley defended Trump's debate performance and insisted the president had actually condemned white supremacists.
"He said 'sure' three times," Gidley said on CNN, referring to his response to questions about whether he would condemn supremacists. "The president does and he did call them out."