Trump also threatened that ‘if they want to release more tapes saying inappropriate things, we’ll continue to talk about Bill and Hillary doing inappropriate things’. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

Lest there be any doubt, Donald Trump made clear Monday that he is running a scorched earth campaign for the next month.

Speaking in a high school gym in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, his first public event since the leak on Friday of his 2005 comments about groping women without their consent, Trump amplified his rhetoric from Sunday night’s debate and attacked rival Hillary Clinton and her husband – former president Bill Clinton – in starkly personal terms.

Trump, who invited four women who claimed to be the victims of misconduct by the Clintons to be his guests at the debate on Sunday, renewed his offensive against his Democratic opponent.

The Republican nominee called Bill Clinton “a predator” and said his wife enabled him “instead of trying to stop it, she made possible for him to take advantage of more women, she put more women into harm’s way”.

He also threatened that “if they want to release more tapes saying inappropriate things, we’ll continue to talk about Bill and Hillary doing inappropriate things.”

Trump also referenced the Chappaquiddick incident – in which a woman died after a car being driven by the late senator Ted Kennedy went off a bridge in 1969. Trump cited the incident as another example of Democratic scandals covered up by the media.

The speech came as Republican leaders increase their efforts to distance themselves from their party’s nominee. Speaker Paul Ryan told members of the House GOP caucus on Monday “you all need to do what’s best for your district” and seemed to write off Trump’s chances of winning, saying he would “spend his entire energy making sure that Hillary Clinton does not get a blank check with a Democrat-controlled Congress”.

After widespread condemnation over his debate threat to jail his political rival, Trump did not explicitly renew his calls to jail Hillary Clinton if he was elected. Instead, he took a somewhat milder tone and merely called for a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton. Trump also suggested – without evidence – that the NSA might have the missing emails that Clinton deleted from her personal email server.

But Trump also attacked Clinton on policy grounds. He railed against the Democratic nominee from the left on entitlement reform and claimed that she wants to “knock the hell out of Medicare and Medicaid”. The former secretary of state has committed to expanding both programs.

He also attacked Clinton for her support for “open trade”. “You know what that does to your community,” Trump asked the crowd. “It’s the end.” He also returned to familiar attacks and falsely claimed Clinton is “for radical unlimited immigration”.

Trump once again offered a vague, evidence-free warning of voter fraud in Pennsylvania. He told the almost entirely all-white crowd “it’s so important that you watch other communities because we don’t want this election stolen from us”. He has made this statement several times in the past in the Keystone state, seemingly based on a popular rightwing conspiracy theory that Mitt Romney was the victim of voter fraud in Philadelphia in 2012. The theory, which is a dogwhistle reference to African American voters, is premised on the fact that in 59 precincts in majority black neighborhoods, Romney did not receive a single vote. There are 1,687 precincts in the city and Obama received over 85% of the vote there in 2012.

While a new NBC/WSJ poll showed the Republican nominee falling behind Clinton by 14 points in a two-way race, Trump supporters in Pennsylvania were unfazed by the nominee’s growing woes. Instead they took heart in what they saw as a dominating debate performance, one which former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani told the crowd was “the best performance any presidential candidate had in the history of debates”.

Joe Tedeski, a Trump supporter who watched the debate, thought his candidate won while Clinton was “the greatest liar I’ve ever seen”. He dismissed concerns about Trump’s remarks saying “people change, attitudes change” and insisting that Trump’s graphic description of groping women without their consent was “just talk” and that he had never actually engaged in that behavior.

This was echoed by Isaac Foldi of Bloomingdale, Ohio, who was decked out in Trump merchandise for the event and praised his candidate’s performance. In particular, Foldi pointed to Trump’s line that Clinton was “no honest Abe” as an effective zinger. While the Trump supporter thought the nominee’s 2005 comments were “not acceptable”, he found them insignificant compared to Clinton’s sins. “It makes little sense to go after him for saying some crude things when Hillary humiliated women raped and assaulted by her husband.”

Trump is scheduled to hold another rally in Pennsylvania on Monday night before spending the next two days in Florida. (The Guardian)