Third debate: Trump tries another wild-card play in final debate with Clinton
Donald Trump is trying another wild-card play in the third and final presidential debate with Hillary Clinton in Las Vegas, in perhaps his last chance to reverse his campaign's spiral and halt his Democratic rival's rising electoral strength.
While Republicans are looking to Trump to turn in a solid, sober performance focusing on the economy and law and order, which he did in late August and early September to close a polling gap then, Democrats say they expect Trump will continue his "scorched-earth'' attacks in a desperate effort to win with a losing hand.
"I used to say she had to prepare for mild Trump, wild Trump, and somewhere-in-between Trump," said Bob Shrum, a senior adviser to Democrats John Kerry and Al Gore in their presidential campaigns. "I think there's probably more emphasis on wild Trump in this prep."
Trump has turned up the volume on his ominous warnings of a "rigged" election and his attacks on Clinton at his campaign rallies have become increasingly harsh and personal, including the suggestion that she was drugged or medicated at the last debate. At an event in Colorado on Tuesday, he promised that the last debate is "going to be interesting."
After Trump invited women who accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to the last debate, his campaign said he's having at this forum Malik Obama, a Kenyan half-brother of President Barack Obama who is backing Trump. He's also invited Pat Smith, the mother of one of the victims who died in 2012 attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi who has said she blames the former secretary of state "personally for the death of my son."
The debate, set to begin at 2pm on Thursday, NZ time, comes after a tumultuous few weeks for Trump. His slide started with a lackluster performance in the first debate on September 26 and continued with the release of a 2005 recording of Trump making lewd comments about women and subsequent allegations from several women that he inappropriately touched them.
Clinton leads Trump by 9 percentage points in a Bloomberg Politics poll of likely voters nationwide taken after those developments.
Trump, who has denied the allegations, has responded by pointing to women who accused Clinton's husband of sexual misconduct, complaining about media coverage, and suggesting that he's the victim of a widespread conspiracy involving Clinton, the media, and special interests.
A bipartisan chorus of officials and experts have pushed back on Trump's warning of widespread election fraud. "Our system is not rigged," Ohio's Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, said Wednesday on MSNBC. "We make it easy to vote and hard to cheat."
Trump's been aided by the ongoing WikiLeaks release of hacked emails purported to be from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta to accuse the Democratic nominee of corruption. The Clinton campaign has not verified the e-mails and its response has focused on what the US has said is Russian hacking.
The emails include staff discussions about how to lessen the political fallout from Clinton's use of a private email server while she was secretary of state and transcripts of speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs that reinforce suspicions among progressives that she is too cozy with Wall Street and more supportive of trade deals than her public stances.
Clinton has vowed to stay above the fray, often quoting first lady Michelle Obama's line that "when they go low, we go high." She's trying to capitalise on Trump's troubles by expanding her campaign into Arizona and other traditionally Republican states, while still seeking to make the case that Trump is unfit to be president.
"If he chooses to continue to embrace his strategy of a scorched-earth campaign and bringing that to the debate stage, she'll be prepared to handle that as she has the last two times," Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters Tuesday.
The format of the 90-minute debate is similar to the first forum, with the candidates behind lecterns and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asking questions on topics that include debt and entitlements; immigration; the economy; the Supreme Court; foreign hot spots; and fitness to be president.
A 55 per cent majority in the Bloomberg Politics poll said they thought the moderators of the first two presidential debates were mostly fair, although 72 per cent of Trump supporters said they were mostly unfair. Three in five likely voters said they expect Wallace will be mostly fair, including 64 per cent of Trump supporters.
Given the status of the race, Clinton can expect the slash-and-burn attacks Trump has been using on the campaign trail, said Ben LaBolt, the national press secretary for Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.
"As big a disaster as the Trump campaign has been the last couple weeks, he was aggressive in delivering a contrast message" in the last debate, LaBolt said. "She needs to deliver her vision for the future and parry the blows coming in from every angle from Trump."
It would be a mistake for Trump to spend his all his time attacking Clinton because most voters already know her and many don't trust her, and Trump did best in the race when he focused on issues and the need for change, said Charlie Black, a longtime Republican strategist.
"You don't have to be a genius to figure out what he needs to do," Black said. "We'll see if he does it."
Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist who worked for Senator Ted Cruz's presidential primary campaign, predicts that Trump will be even more bombastic than he was in the first and second debates because his campaign has given up trying to expand his base. It's now focused on trying to make Democrats dispirited and disinclined to vote, he said.
"Their final strategy is to suppress Clinton's turnout using scorched-earth tactics," Tyler said.
For Clinton, Tyler said the goal is to survive the attacks and "confirm her strongest message that his temperament makes him unfit for the presidency."
LaBolt offered this advice to Clinton as she watches Trump's campaign struggle: "If the Titanic is sinking, get out of the way."
The final debate isn't likely to sway many voters or undo Clinton's lead in polls wholesale, especially because the first debate typically has the largest impact, said John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University who has studied presidential debates.
The race is also increasingly turning to the point where the task isn't as much to persuade voters as to get them to cast ballots, which is especially important for Clinton, LaBolt said.
"This is about turnout and she needs to turn out as much of the Obama coalition as possible and make sure that what has become an increasingly negative campaign doesn't keep people at home," he said.
The debate takes place in a battleground state that's been surprisingly close, given its large Hispanic population and how much Trump has turned off that voting bloc nationally.
Clinton leads Trump by an average of about 4 to 5 per centage points in Nevada, according to surveys compiled by RealClearPolitics. In the 2012 presidential election, Hispanics accounted for 19 per cent of the electorate.
- The Washington Post