Third debate: 10 things to watch for
Just 20 more sleeps and a debate that could be the last big night of the presidential campaign – think of it as Donald Trump's last stand.
God knows what to expect when Trump and Hillary Clinton face off at the University of Las Vegas on Wednesday evening (Thursday midday AEST).
It's a showdown that some rank with the casino city's most surreal encounter – when boxer Mike Tyson kept biting Evander Holyfield's ear in a match billed as "the Sound and the Fury" in 1997.
That's probably unkind to the boxers. But here are 10 things to watch for and what Paul Keating, the Australian king of political insults, might have added to this fraught discourse …
1. Trump implodes – again:
Can he pivot to substance over bluster?
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At fleeting moments in the first two debates, some detected a firm grasp of policy by Trump, but it seems the real Trump can't help himself.
Going off like a two-bob watch, playing to base voters with wild declarations, like putting Clinton in jail, is not likely to increase his vote thereby increasing his share of the vote. Trump seems to think he might change the calculus, by so disgusting likely Clinton supporters among moderate and independent voters that they'll stay at home.
A problem – a Trump pivot to presidential demeanour and policy specifics at this late stage might look disingenuous. Clinton could recall Keating on John Hewson: "This is the sort of little-boy, stamp your foot stuff which comes from a financial yuppie when you shoe him into parliament."
2. Republican heavies – ashen faced:
In the wake of Trump's latest groundless claim that 1.8 million dead people will vote, even his campaign manager, Kelly Anne Conway, rejected his claim there is a grand political-corporate-media conspiracy to rob him of victory.
But as the historic authors of Trump's wild "rigged election" canard, they own it. As Trump ratchets up his groundless, demonic charges, GOP leaders watch as voters flee for the exits.
By some analysts reckoning, collateral damage to down-ticket Republican candidates has already delivered the Senate to the Democrats and, unthinkably, the House could be up for grabs.
3. Trump's big problem – it's all in his boxers:
Clinton wasn't to know how well she was setting the scene in the first debate, raising Trump's abusive treatment of a former Miss Universe, for Trump to become so mired in an avalanche of sexual assault accusations.
First, the "grab-them-by-the-pussy" video in which he effectively admits to being a sexual predator; and then no less than nine women going on the record, claiming they were his victims.
Trump's denials are unconvincing – and in pushing his Bill Clinton-is-worse argument, Trump can be relied on to raise new allegations from Leslie Millwee, an Arkansas TV reporter who claims that the former president rubbed himself against her three times in 1980.
4. Clinton's challenge – be human:
She needs to make her answers sound more like conversational grabs than excerpts from policy documents – more personable, less wonkish.
In the second debate her body language was more human, particularly her movement across the stage to engage questioners in the audience – even as Trump, hovering over her shoulder, took on the appearance of a stalker.
Given Trump's "Clinton is so past it" spiel, in her person and her policies, Trump could well resort to Keating on Howard: "What we've got is a dead carcass, swinging in the breeze, but nobody will cut it down to replace [her]."
5. WikiLeaks – "sausage-making" ain't pretty:
There's still no smoking gun in the email issue – the FBI cleared Clinton on her email server and Democratic Party emails and Clinton speeches leaked by WikiLeaks reveal her to be as cynical and scheming as any career politician might be.
But Clinton's obfuscation and this week's release of emails showing a State Department officer seeking FBI co-operation in what seemed like a bid to protect Clinton adds to the murkiness – and is sure to be a Trump point of attack. Trump might echo Keating on Howard: "[She] has more hide than a team of elephants."
6. Melania's contribution – dangerous territory:
The Trump decision to wheel his wife out for two television interviews this week was a political miscalculation.
It also was a gift to Clinton, not because Mrs Trump seemed to know so little of the Trump on public view; not because she echoed Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy" riff at the height of the Bill Clinton sex scandals in the 1990s; and not because she cast her husband as a "boy" who could be "egged on" by the likes of Billy Bush – which suggests he'd be putty in the hands of the president of Russia or the King of Tonga.
The gift was this: if/when Trump goes on the attack over Bill Clinton's conduct, Clinton can segue immediately to the privacy of marriage, the hurt of a wronged wife and a desperation that would induce them to appear on national TV to defend their own honour and the louse to whom they are married.
These are sentiments that earned her great public sympathy in the past. Given his form, Trump is capable of quoting Keating, as he shut down "Iron Bar" Wilson Tuckey: "Shut up! Sit down and shut up, you pig!"
7. Obama's brother – estrangement:
Really, the best stunt Trump can come up with, after parading Bill Clinton's accusers at the second debate in St Louis, is to invite Barack Obama's estranged brother Malik as a guest – a guy who rejected the president because of his support for same-sex marriage.
An underwhelmed Clinton might say, as Keating said of John Howard: "… like being flogged with a warm lettuce. It was like being mauled by a dead sheep."
8. Moderator Chris Wallace – whither Fox News:
CNN's Anderson Cooper and ABC News' Martha Raddatz set a high bar in the second debate – Cooper for his frontal challenge to Trump on his admissions in the "grab-them-by-the-pussy" video and Raddatz for making Trump stick to answering the question asked.
Wallace's chosen topics are debt and entitlements, immigration, economy, the Supreme Court, foreign hotspots and fitness to be president.
But in the aftermath of the sensational ouster of Fox chief Roger Ailes on sexual harassment charges and the Murdoch-owned channel's search for a new footing in a fracturing right-wing media establishment, Republicans will be looking for signs of a new direction.
If Wallace doesn't keep control, either Clinton or Trump could demand that Wallace rein in the other, as when Keating demanded that Howard be calmed down:
"He's wound up like a thousand-day clock! One [more half] turn and there'll be springs and sprockets all over the building. Mr Speaker, give him a Valium."
9. The polls – a yawning gulf:
The gap is opening like the mouth of a tiger that is set to consume Trump.
Clinton has opened a lead of about seven points in the average of nation polls and she has opened plausible leads in most of the vital swing states – even in Arizona, unthinkable as a swing state, a new poll has her leading by five points.
There are reports that she might attempt some policy shifts, to broaden her appeal; more likely she'll adopt a steady-as-she-goes strategy.
10. Policy – what's that got to do with it:
Such is the swirl of insults and hyperbole in this campaign that serious policy discussion is MIA.
Clinton's default position is a deep-dive into policy, but amidst the noise and conspiracy theories of the campaign, she has opted to lie low pretty much since the last debate – giving Trump all the space he needs to self-destruct.
Trump's policies are little more than bullet points and he can't hold a thought – in a recent speech, The Washington Post counted him addressing no less that 21 different topics in the space of five minutes. Clinton could channel Keating on Peter Costello: "He's all tip and no iceberg."
- Fairfax Media Australia