Why presidential debates are important

Final showdown: Clinton and Trump battle again in last debate

19 days until vote

Thursday marks 19 days until Americans vote in federal and state races on Nov. 8. All year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has brought you the key moments in those races, and it will continue to cover the campaign’s main events, examine the issues and analyze candidates’ finance reports until the last ballot is counted. You can follow the developments on the AJC’s politics page at http://www.myajc.com/s/news/georgia-politics/ and in the Political Insider blog at http://www.myajc.com/s/news/political-insider/. You can also track our coverage on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GAPoliticsNews or Facebook at https://facebook.com/gapoliticsnewsnow.

At first, it seemed a tamer Donald Trump had showed up Wednesday at the third and final presidential debate. He avoided chances to interrupt Hillary Clinton and seemed to hold back when she said he “choked” in a confrontation with the Mexican president.

But the bare-knuckled debate style that helped Trump emerge from a crowded GOP primary resurfaced in Las Vegas, as Trump tried to reverse a slide that could sink his White House chances.

He declared Clinton a “liar in so many different ways” and blurted “wrong” several times as she leveled attacks at him. He blamed Clinton’s campaign for the string of women who accused him of forcibly groping and kissing them. He appealed to core supporters with his hard-line immigration stance and vow to build a wall on the Mexican border.

And, in a moment that seems destined to be taught in future history courses, he refused to say whether he will accept the outcome of the election.

“I will look at it at the time,” he said, adding that Clinton “should never have been allowed to run.”

Trump entered the debate facing a bleak electoral map tilting solidly in Clinton’s favor. The Democrat has hefty leads in national polls and has carved out smaller leads in the battleground states that Trump needs to win the presidency.

Compounding matters for Trump are the dozens of high-profile Republican lawmakers and elders who have abandoned his campaign, or refused to defend him, after he was seen bragging about forcibly groping and kissing women in a 2005 videotape that surfaced this month. A string of women making similar claims have since come forward.

The GOP nominee’s debate strategy, however, appeared aimed at energizing his Republican base rather than broadening his appeal to more moderate voters. His campaign has long hoped that maximizing its support among white males and evangelicals could help him win Pennsylvania and other states in the “blue” column.

And Clinton, who largely disappeared from the campaign trail to prepare for the debate, seemed intent on keeping up the pressure on her opponent rather than pivoting to a broader message on what her presidency would look like.

‘10 minutes of fame’

Democrats hope they can win over droves of conservative women by highlighting Trump’s disparaging comments about women and minorities, and Clinton tried to make the case that he’s unfit for the presidency. She called his rhetoric a “pattern of divisiveness” that only sharpens the nation’s divides.

“Donald thinks belittling women would make him bigger. He goes after her dignity, their self-worth,” Clinton said. “And I don’t think there’s a woman out there who doesn’t know what that feels like.”

The Republican shot back that the claims were false and “largely debunked,” and he blamed Democrats and women seeking “10 minutes of fame.”

“I didn’t even apologize to my wife, who is sitting right here, because I didn’t do anything,” Trump said. When he added that “nobody has more respect for women than I do,” moderator Chris Wallace urged some in the crowd who snickered to quiet down.

Trump also tried to capitalize on the trove of hacked emails attributed to top Clinton adviser John Podesta released by WikiLeaks, quoting a private speech she delivered talking of “open trade and open borders.” She countered that she was talking about open borders for energy, not immigration.

And he blamed illegal immigration for the drug epidemic besieging American communities, claiming that Clinton’s more lenient immigration policy would lead to amnesty.

“We have some bad hombres here,” he said, “and we’re going to get them out.”

She tried to rattle Trump throughout the debate, knocking him for refusing to release his federal income tax returns and claiming that he outsourced jobs to China and employed immigrants in the country illegally.

“There’s only one of us on this stage who’s actually shipped jobs to Mexico — that’s Donald,” Clinton said.

Trump, meanwhile, returned to a line of attack he used against Republican primary rivals with brutal efficiency, blasting her as a do-nothing politician who won’t make a whit of difference for the average American voter.

“The problem is you talk and you don’t get anything done, Hillary,” he said, adding: “If you get elected, this country is going to be in some mess. Believe me.”

And on his use of tax loopholes that allowed him not to pay federal income taxes for decades, Trump had this retort: “If you don’t like what I did, you should have changed the laws.”

Three weeks to go

The third debate was expected to draw tens of millions of viewers, but analysts question whether it would shake up the race. Early voting is underway in Georgia and about 30 other states, and more than 2.2 million ballots have already been cast. Polls show only a tiny fraction of voters are still undecided after a race that’s dragged on for more than a year.

As her advantage in the polls grows, Clinton has looked to broaden her electoral map. Recent polls show the races in Utah and Texas are tightening, too. Her campaign has pumped cash into a range of reliably conservative states with tight Senate races. And she has redoubled her efforts in Arizona, where she’s leading in recent polls.

That red-state strategy has so far bypassed Georgia, which hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton swept most of the South in 1992. But a pro-Clinton super PAC invested at least $1 million in an ad blitz in Georgia this week promoting the Democrat, and Georgia operatives say she could make a final push in the state.

Trump, meanwhile, has been deluged by criticism from leaders from both sides of the aisle for sowing doubts about the integrity of the election, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud in presidential elections. But the fallout had little effect on Trump, who repeated his concern that the election would be rigged in favor of Clinton.

Then, in perhaps the most memorable moment of the debate, he drew audible gasps from some in the audience when he wouldn’t say whether he would accept Clinton as a victor, essentially suggesting he could undermine the peaceful transition of power that’s long been a hallmark of American democracy.

“I will keep you in suspense,” he said.

It seemed like a moment Clinton was waiting for. She called his words “horrifying” and charged that he always blames others when contests don’t go his way.

“You are not up to doing the job,” she said.