Five things to watch in tonight’s last debate


Clinton’s on defense and Trump has nothing left to lose.

Donald Trump is down to his third and final toss of the debate-night dice.

It’s fitting, in this craps 2016 campaign, that a semi-successful casino magnate turned semi-successful presidential candidate would get his last big chance in a city that fleeces suckers by the thousands– while occasionally making kings out of underdogs in ill-fitting suits and overlong ties.

For all his recent struggles, Trump has been, in the words of a longtime adviser, “an uncommonly lucky man,” fortunate to catch the populist wave of his restive party, aligned ever so perfectly with the infotainment appetites of fun-starved basic cable, and luckiest of all in drawing Hillary Clinton, a flawed opponent nearly if not quite as unpopular as he is. So maybe he’s got one more surprise in him.

Yet here Trump stands (sitting, actually at tonight’s debate on UNLV’s campus), so far down in the calculations of most oddsmakers that even his own people seem at a loss to describe what victory might look like. And that’s the problem: He’s run such a disorganized, nasty and politically undisciplined campaign, it’s hard to even see what a win looks like, or worse, whether it would really do any good.

Every presidential debate is, by definition, do or die. This one might be do and die. Here are five things to watch if you can stomach watching another one of these things.

1. Hillary Clinton will be on the defensive. Trump’s fitness to lead has, rightly, been the major focus of his conventionally lousy first debate and the national disgrace of his second one. But here’s some good news for him! Trump has done such a masterful job of handing Clinton the election that the inevitable focus now is on her! America wants, demands, that final kick-the-tires test, as Barack Obama said of the process – and significant questions remain about her honesty, integrity, judgement and trustworthiness.

Broken record time: If Trump wasn’t so rotten a candidate, Clinton’s troubles would already be the main focus of any debate. Start with new revelations of about her emails, then add a steady WikiLeaks drumbeat of revelations, damaging (Wall Street-friendly pronouncements at her closed-door speeches), annoying (a top campaign official’s decision to lump potential vice-presidential picks as “flavors”—black, Hispanic, female, white and Bernie Sanders who had his own category) to the disturbing (a Democratic consultant’s apparent hidden-camera admission that he wanted to incite violence at Trump rallies).

Beatings, like bossa novas, have a predictable rhythm. Trump’s beating (however deserved or self-inflicted) has gone on for too long in terms of the cyclical attention span of modern media, and it’s simply Hillary’s turn. It has always been her campaign’s biggest concern that the press would turn the last month into a horse race even if Clydesdale Donald threw the rider. “You guys need something to cover, so you will create something to cover,” Communications Director Jen Palmieri told me in the beer tent (next to the Budweiser horses) before the debate in St. Louis earlier this month.

2. How low will Trump go? Last time Trump suggested Clinton was the devil, said she had “hate in her heart” and paraded Bill Clinton’s accusers in front of the debate stage. And that was ten days ago, when he was doing better in the polls.

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