LAS VEGAS — 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 Wednesday night’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. 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, judgment 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 about her emails, then add a steady WikiLeaks drumbeat of revelations, from the damaging (Wall Street-friendly pronouncements at her closed-door speeches), to the 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) and 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 10 days ago, when he was doing better in the polls.
3. Republicans are a little worried about Chris Wallace. The shark-eyed veteran debate moderator is not known as a pillow-fight questioner — but a couple of Trump supporters and party officials expressed a concern that the “Fox Sunday” host will take it easy on Clinton to prove he’s not in the Murdoch tank for Trump. “Chris is the best, but he’s got a reputation for being a little tougher on Republicans than Democrats,” said a GOP official allied with Trump. “So there’s a lot of pressure on Chris.”
Trump surrogate Boris Epshteyn waved that one off. “She lied to Chris about the emails, and he called her on it, and then she had the worst week of her campaign,” he told me. “So I’m not too worried.”
4. Oh, man, Trump could really use Roger Ailes right now. Trump plans to attack again. Duh. He plans to be more focused on Clinton’s scandals and her “30 years” of ineffective governance. No kidding. And he won’t get bogged down in defending himself against the charges that he’s made more unwanted sexual advances than boasts about his long game.
The problem is that the candidate possesses neither the political savvy nor personal self-control to stick to the attacks that resonate most deeply with the now nearly nonexistent pool of persuadable voters. Early voting and the historical hardening of voter sentiment in the last three weeks of any campaign means Trump’s chance to make his case (whatever that may be) is at the vanishing point.
The debates were his last, best hope to do that — and he appears to have allowed his ego and misguided DIY campaigning style stand in the way. Trump doesn’t really respect anybody but himself, and his rotating cast of debate advisers, overseen by his increasingly powerful son-in-law Jared Kushner, act as matadors waving their capes at him while he charges around the room in whatever direction he chooses — headlong into such vote-winning topics as Bill Clinton’s sexual predations and the exoneration of five black men in the decades-old Central Park rape case.
The one guy with the stature to stop him? Former Fox head man Roger Ailes, a Trump friend who seemed poised to provide message discipline and a dash of genius after being booted from his network after allegations of sexual harassment. Ailes spent a few days with Trump in prep sessions prior to the first debate, held at Hofstra, and quickly concluded that his old buddy was essentially uncoachable — after enduring a lecture from the candidate about letting Trump be Trump, according to a friend of both.
5. Clinton’s closing argument: Trump is a threat to American democracy. Over the past two weeks, Trump has gone from making a searing personal case against Hillary Clinton to questioning the underpinnings of peaceful political competition by suggesting — with zero evidence — that an election overseen by 50 independent boards of elections could somehow be “rigged.”
It is a powerful argument for a lot of Trump’s supporters, who believe that there is, in fact, a Clinton-led conspiracy to steal the election through voter fraud or the “collusion” of mainstream media reporters who want to rob them of their franchise and the truth. No credible candidate for the presidency has ever made that dangerous assertion — and nearly every top Republican (from his running mate, Mike Pence, on down) has rejected it.
“One of the great things about America’s democracy is we have a vigorous, sometimes bitter, political contest, and when it’s done, historically, regardless of party, the person who loses the election congratulates the winner, reaffirms our democracy and we move forward,” President Obama said Monday when asked about Trump’s charge.
“I have never seen in my lifetime or in modern political history, any presidential candidate trying to discredit the elections and the election process before votes have even taken place,” Obama said. “It’s unprecedented. It happens to be based on no facts.”
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