Race breaking Clinton's way
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Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Armageddon elections to come Poll: Trump leads 2024 Republican field with DeSantis in distant second The politics of 'mind control' MORE has a small but meaningful edge over Donald TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Korea conducts potential 6th missile test in a month Kemp leading Perdue in Georgia gubernatorial primary: poll US ranked 27th least corrupt country in the world MORE with a little more than five weeks to go until the presidential election. 

Clinton has moved onto firmer ground over the last week, thanks to her well-received performance in the first general election debate and lingering troubles for Trump. She has led in every significant battleground state poll conducted in the debate’s aftermath.


The race remains competitive, however.

Clinton’s lead in the RealClearPolitics national polling average is hovering between 2 and 3 percentage points. Trump still leads in the polling averages of several battleground states, including Ohio, North Carolina and Nevada. Data forecasting site FiveThirtyEight gives Trump about a 1-in-3 chance of prevailing.

But if Trump is to triumph, even Republicans acknowledge that their nominee will have to exert more discipline than he has shown in the past week. In a speech on Saturday night, he departed from his prepared text repeatedly, mocking Clinton's recent battle with pneumonia and saying he did not think she was loyal to her husband, former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team Perdue proposes election police force in Georgia To boost economy and midterm outlook, Democrats must pass clean energy bill MORE.

The week had begun for Trump with a debate performance that drew considerable criticism and appears to have halted his momentum.

Even more alarming, to some Republicans, was Trump’s prolonged focus on one of the most damaging episodes from that debate, his criticism of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado.

At the debate, Clinton noted that Trump had once called Machado “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping,” the latter term an apparent reference to her Latina heritage. Machado was born in Venezuela, though she is now a U.S. citizen. “She has a name, Donald,” Clinton said at the debate. 

The exchange was a bad one for Trump, but it only became a weeklong media frenzy after he decided to feud with Machado in interviews and tweets. 

Trump told Fox News host Bill O’Reilly that he had saved Machado’s job by pressing her to lose weight.  

“They wanted to fire her for putting on so much weight. It is a beauty contest,” he told O’Reilly.

Then, in the early hours of Friday, Trump went after Machado again on Twitter, calling the former beauty queen “disgusting” and encouraging his followers to “check out [her] sex tape and past.”  

Machado has appeared topless in Playboy and was once accused of being the getaway driver in an attempted murder, though she was not indicted due to lack of evidence. There is no also evidence that she has filmed a sex tape. The allegation may have been a reference to a risqué incident on a Spanish-language reality show.

The episode has left Republicans frustrated. 

“We should be talking about the 33,000 emails,” Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnSenate Republicans press federal authorities for information on Texas synagogue hostage-taker Sunday shows preview: Democrats' struggle for voting rights bill comes to a head CNN legal analyst knocks GOP senator over remark on Biden nominee MORE (R-Tenn.), a top Trump supporter and surrogate, told The Hill last week. “We should be talking about the fact that the House had to do another hearing yesterday with [FBI Director] James Comey about this issue.” 

The GOP nominee's difficulties deepened over the weekend, when The New York Times published a story noting that he had declared a $916 million loss on his 1995 tax returns. The newspaper concluded that the loss was "so substantial it could have allowed him to legally avoid paying any federal income taxes for up to 18 years."

All is by no means lost for Trump, however.

This year’s White House race has shifted unpredictably at times. Clinton saw a once-comfortable lead all but disappear between mid-August and mid-September. And there are still two debates to go, at which Trump could do better and the Democratic nominee could make mistakes. Those debates will take place on Oct. 9 in St Louis and Oct. 19 in Las Vegas.

An October surprise, perhaps courtesy of Julian Assange’s Wikileaks, could also boost Trump. Wikileaks revealed damaging Democratic National Committee emails just before the party’s national convention during the summer, and Assange has made no secret of his distaste for Clinton.

Even so, Trump and the GOP face a forbidding reality in the electoral map. Clinton appears to have several more paths than Trump to the 270 electoral votes required to win the presidency.

If the leader in the RealClearPolitics average in every battleground state as of Sunday were to hold, Clinton would end up with 293 electoral votes to Trump’s 245 — and that assumes the Republican wins Ohio. 

That scenario also assumes Trump carries Nevada, Colorado and North Carolina, all states in which he leads by less than a single percentage point in the RealClearPolitics average. No major polls have been conducted in Colorado and North Carolina since the first debate; in Nevada, both major polls conducted since then show Clinton leading.

In addition to Ohio, Trump would likely need to carry Florida, where Clinton has regained a narrow lead. If he failed to do so, he would almost certainly need to win Pennsylvania, a state that last voted for a Republican at the presidential level in 1988, as well as some other state where Clinton currently leads. 

Republicans have also been perplexed by Trump’s willingness to be outspent on TV advertising. The GOP nominee is relying on his ability to drive media coverage in order to counteract a Clinton advantage of almost 7-to-1 in paid advertising.

The campaigns were making a final fundraising push on Friday, the last day of the third quarter. Clinton later announced that her campaign had raised about $84 million during the month, her largest haul so far. She had begun September with about $68 million on hand. Trump was then behind, but not catastrophically so, with $50 million on hand. The Trump campaign had not released September fundraising numbers as of Sunday night.

It’s still all to play for with five weeks to go. But for the moment, Clinton holds the edge. 

Ben Kamisar contributed.