Donald Trump's Alicia Machado Problem: Experts Say He Fell into the Trap Hillary Clinton Laid for Him at Debate

Donald Trump broke "rule one of debating" when he took Hillary Clinton's "bait" on his Alicia Machado comments, one Republican strategist tells PEOPLE

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Donald Trump is playing right into Hillary Clinton‘s hands by keeping the Alicia Machado story alive, political experts tell PEOPLE.

During Monday night’s presidential debate, Clinton held up Trump’s past criticism of the former Miss Universe’s weight as proof of his sexism and disrespect toward women over the years.

Trump breathed new bluster into the issue the following day when he appeared on Fox and Friends and once again shamed Machado for gaining “a massive amount of weight” after she won the Miss Universe contest in 1996.

“It was a real problem,” he insisted. Ironically, Trump wasn’t even asked about Machado in the interview. He brought it up.

He was back at it on Wednesday, when he continued his attacks against Machado on The O’Reilly Factor, while also bragging that he “saved her job” as Miss Universe. “She did not do well. She had a lot of difficulty, and, you know, they wanted to fire her. The company itself wanted to fire her. I saved her job,” Trump said.

Meanwhile, Machado was gaining public support and sympathy after opening up about her battle with anorexia and bulimia during her pageant days – eating disorders she says were exacerbated by Trump calling her names like “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Eating Machine.”

Mark Pfeifle, former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, tells PEOPLE Trump has fallen into a trap Clinton laid for him at the debate.

“Rule one of debating is never take the bait. Mrs. Clinton threw out the chum and Trump gobbled it up like marlin destined for the dinner table,” Pfeifle says. “He grabbed ahold of Mrs. Clinton’s accusations about the former Miss Universe and continued the self-inflicted wounds on Fox and Friends in the morning.”

Brian Reich, a communications strategist who worked for Vice President Al Gore in the White House and during his 2000 presidential campaign, tells PEOPLE Trump’s ongoing comments about Machado are harmful to his campaign on multiple levels.

“It calls attention to his temperament,” Reich says. “He arguably looks sexist and like a bully for continually picking on a seemingly innocent person. He also seems unable to rise above a relatively minor issue and stay focused on the larger issues facing the country. I don’t think voters want a president who gets so easily distracted, especially when the issue doesn’t really relate to our daily lives.”

Plus, Trump’s personal attacks on Machado, who is Hispanic, could further alienate Hispanic voters, as well as women voters, young voters and “anyone who feels marginalized in this country,” Reich says. “Those are important audiences that he needs to win – or not lose in a landslide – if he expects to win the election. He gains nothing by having this conversation and he potentially loses a lot.”

Finally, Reich explains, “It takes focus away from anything else Trump might want voters to be talking about: something negative about Secretary Clinton, one of his policy ideas, anything. He has given up control of the campaign narrative and it’s hard to win when you don’t control the narrative.”

Adds GOP consultant Jean Card, a former Bush administration official, “There is an element of Charlie Brown (Trump) rushing to kick Lucy’s (Hillary’s) football on this issue. Pivoting away from personal attacks and back toward economic policy and job creation would help Trump with some of the more reticent Republicans.”

Following bipartisan criticism over his debate performance, Trump has attempted to regain control of the narrative by trotting out a new attack line against Clinton, both on the campaign trail and in an onslaught of press releases: “Follow the money.”

With this new strategy, Trump is portraying Clinton as a “corrupt pawn of major donors and special interest,” says Politico. He hammered away at the issue during a campaign rally on Wednesday, telling supporters, “Everything you need to know about Hillary Clinton can be understood by this simple phrase: follow the money.”

But one Republican operative close to the campaign, still “fuming” about Trump’s debate performance, tells Politico, “I think it’s a complete waste of time. It’s not something like Benghazi that resonates with voters. I still can’t believe that Trump just completely dropped the ball on that.”

Trump comments about Machado and other women, on the other hand, appear to be resonating. A new NBC News|SurveyMoney poll taken after the debate shows that 27 percent of likely women voters think less of Trump after the debate. Meanwhile, 30 percent said their opinion of Clinton had improved. The poll also found that women were also far likelier to say Clinton won the debate, by a 10-point margin over men.

Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, who supports Trump, admitted on MSNBC Wednesday that Trump calling Machado “Miss Piggy” was “not helpful.”

But Republican strategist Pfeifle says it’s Trump’s lingering on the Machado moment that’s hurting him most. The Clinton campaign “can only lay a trap,” he says. “It was up to Trump to walk into it. And each day since, he seems like a guy who chews off his own leg. Not because it will get him out of the trap, but because he seems to like the taste.”

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