Ballot Box

Five takeaways from final debate

LAS VEGAS - That's a wrap.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump made their closing arguments to voters on Wednesday night at the third and final 2016 presidential debate and are now left with just the final sprint to Election Day.

The tilt in Las Vegas had a little something for everyone: sharp personal attacks, substantive policy discussion and Trump's unmatched ability to provoke controversy.

Here are five takeaways from their final clash:

Clinton looks to run up the score

Pundits had predicted Clinton would seek to play it safe in the last debate, with polls giving her a comfortable lead nationally and in battleground states.

Instead, she sought to run up the score.

She attacked Trump aggressively, seeking a resounding victory that will rob her detractors of the argument that she lacks a mandate to govern.

"I'm reaching out to all Americans, Democrats, Republicans and independents, because we need everyone to help make our country what it needs to be," Clinton said in her closing remarks.

Shortly before that, Clinton attacked Trump for having taken out an advertisement in the 1980s that was critical of Ronald Regan, the most revered figure in the modern conservative movement.

She adopted some of the populist rhetoric of Trump and her former primary rival, Bernie Sanders, saying that she's running against the "powerful corporations and the wealthy." And she sought to fight back on trade by accusing Trump of using steel from China in his buildings. 

That's a bid for Rust Belt voters in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana, where the Trump must succeed to be competitive.

Overall, Clinton was surprisingly aggressive for a candidate who needs only to run out the clock, describing Trump as a choke artist and calling him a "puppet" of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Going for the kill could help the down-ballot Democrats emboldened by the GOP's internal civil war over Trump, even as she seeks to expand the presidential electoral map.

Clinton's campaign has moved into traditionally red states, dispatching top surrogates to places like Arizona and seeking to capitalize on Trump's freefall in places including Georgia, Alaska and Utah. 

In the spin room before the debate, Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon described Texas as a "purple" state where the election would be closer than people think.

Women at the forefront

Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News opened a section of the debate about the candidates' fitness for office by challenging Trump on the women who have accused him of groping or kissing them without permission.

It was perhaps the most intense stretch of the debate and culminated in one of Clinton's strongest moments.

Trump claimed that the allegations from all of his accusers had been "debunked." He blamed the Clinton campaign for planting false stories about him and called his accusers publicity hounds.

"I didn't even apologize to my wife, who is sitting right here, because I didn't do anything," Trump said.

In a somber tone delivered over repeated interruptions from Trump, Clinton argued that Trump had repeatedly mocked women for their looks, and sought to shame and demean them privately and in the workplace.

"Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger," Clinton said. "He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don't think there's a woman anywhere that doesn't know what that feels like."

"Nobody has more respect for women than I do," Trump shot back, drawing gasps from the audience.

Wallace had to remind the crowd to stay quiet.

Later, Trump lit up social media for muttering into the microphone: "Such a nasty woman."

Female voters make up an outsize portion of the electorate and may very well be responsible for sending Trump to a huge defeat on Nov. 8.

Trump shocks with refusal to accept election results

Many Republicans were tired of Trump's talk about a rigged election before his remarks on Wednesday night that he would not commit to accepting the legitimacy of the vote count on Election Day.

Trump said there are "millions of people" who are registered to vote illegally, alleged that the media has "poisoned the minds of the voters," and pledged to keep the nation in "suspense" over whether he'd concede the race to Clinton.

Those remarks were received with bewilderment from Wallace, who noted the nation's long history of "peaceful transfer of power."

Clinton was not as charitable.

"That's horrifying," she said.

Trump's remarks set him apart from his running mate, Mike Pence, who has said the ticket would "absolutely" accept the results, and from his daughter Ivanka, who said she expected her father to abide by the vote count.

Trump's critics seized on his remarks after the debate, and Republicans down the ballot will be forced to weigh in over the coming days.

Several jumped at the chance.

".@realDonaldTrump saying that he might not accept election results is beyond the pale," tweeted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Az.).

"Mr. Trump is doing the party and our country a great disservice by continuing to suggest the outcome of this election is out of his hands and 'rigged' against him," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "It will not be because the system is 'rigged' but because he failed as a candidate."

Trump is no longer in control of his own destiny

Trump had some strong moments in Wednesday night's debate.

The GOP nominee ably defended the conservative position against abortion and stayed on the attack against Clinton on her biggest vulnerabilities, raising questions about the FBI's investigation into her private email server, donations from foreign governments to the Clinton Foundation and revelations from the WikiLeaks email dumps.

But Clinton countered and may have won more points over the course of the night. Several instant polls named Clinton the winner.

Regardless, Trump needed a campaign-altering moment, and it didn't happen.

He will enter the final three weeks before Election Day trailing badly and with his support teetering on the edge of full collapse, stirring Republican fears that they could lose the House majority. 

The days of Trump boasting about his polling numbers and his prospects in blue states are long gone.

Trump's attacks against Clinton and the message that turned him into a winner in the GOP primaries won't be enough to get him back to that place.

He needs some outside development or event to change the dynamic of the race if he's going to be president.

Policy takes center stage

For policy wonks and those who believe the election has not been about the issues, Wednesday night's debate was a winner.

Wallace is being held up as a hero for steering the discourse into specific areas of policy and for provoking some interesting exchanges between the candidates on gun rights, abortion, entitlements, immigration and foreign policy.

Clinton was pressed to answer some uncomfortable questions about her support of late-term abortion.

Trump was held to account for questionable remarks he's made about Russia, Syria and war-torn areas in the Middle East.

The first half hour of the debate even included a lengthy discussion of the Second Amendment, focused on a Supreme Court decision.

There were moments when the debate devolved into the tawdry details of the candidates' personal lives. But overall, Wallace was able to draw them away from scorched-earth combat.

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