Trump sparks furor at final debate
© Greg Nash

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE’s refusal to say that he will accept the presidential election’s outcome overshadowed all else during his third debate with Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Ohio Senate candidate slams JD Vance over previous Trump comments Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion MORE, in Las Vegas on Wednesday evening. 

Virtually no one in the political world argued that the GOP nominee would benefit from the move.

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Trump’s remarks — he told moderator Chris Wallace he "will look at it at the time” and "keep you in suspense” — stood in sharp contrast to recent comments from his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceFormer Sen. Bob Dole dies at 98 Haley has 'positive' meeting with Trump Haley hits the stump in South Carolina MORE, and even his daughter Ivanka.

His stance also sent shockwaves through the Republican Party, where criticism of Trump was already running high. 

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeRubio vows to slow-walk Biden's China, Spain ambassador nominees Senate confirms Thomas Nides as US ambassador to Israel Flake, Cindy McCain among latest Biden ambassadors confirmed after delay MORE (R-Ariz.) quickly tweeted that Trump’s position was “beyond the pale.” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate Democrat says he will 'settle' for less aggressive gun control reform 'because that will save lives' Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead MORE (R-S.C.) released a statement asserting that Trump was “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.”

Both Flake and Graham are longtime Trump critics. 

The reaction among GOP strategists was even more pointed. Nicolle Wallace, who worked for President George W. Bush and 2008 GOP nominee John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe bully who pulls the levers of Trump's mind never learns GOP senators appalled by 'ridiculous' House infighting MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Chris Christie battle over Fox News MORE, described Trump’s words as “a disqualifying statement” on NBC News.

Meanwhile, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway tried to find an escape route from the position her candidate had enunciated, telling CNN moments after the debate ended that “Donald Trump will accept the results of the election because he will win the election.”

Trump’s stance erased any final doubt that he would remain the same candidate he has always been: one who stands defiantly outside the parameters of normal political discourse.

The approach won him the GOP nomination against all odds, as Republican voters rallied to his attacks on political correctness and illegal immigration, as well as his flamboyant verbal assaults on his rivals.

On Wednesday evening, he reiterated his plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, promised to deport “some bad hombres” and assailed his Democratic rival as “such a nasty woman.” 

But the effectiveness of Trump’s approach looks much more limited with the general electorate than it was in the GOP primaries. Trump trails Clinton by about 7 percentage points in national polling averages and also lags in the battleground states. Some places that are normally Republican redoubts look competitive this year, including Arizona, Georgia and perhaps even Texas and Utah.

A CNN/ORC poll in the immediate aftermath of the Vegas debate found 52 percent of debate watchers thought Clinton was the winner, compared with 39 percent who picked Trump — though that poll’s respondents are thought to skew somewhat Democratic.

The debate was the last big set piece of the campaign — a TV audience of 60 million or more was predicted — and it was not without some strong moments for Trump.

He pressed Clinton again on her positions on free trade and sought to make a broader argument that she was part of a political status quo that was stale and dysfunctional. 

“I say the one thing you have over me is experience, but it’s bad experience,” he told her.

Trump also seemed more sure of himself and comfortable in the environment than he had in their previous encounters. Seeking to defend his immigration stance, he reminded Clinton and the audience that “millions and millions of people” had been deported during President Obama’s tenure. He also complained that the president’s signature healthcare law had resulted in “bad healthcare at the most expensive price.”

But, overall, the relatively restrained Trump of the debate’s opening stages gave way to a more fractious and irritable candidate as time wore on. 

Clinton, meanwhile, found her mark with plenty of verbal jabs of her own. She hit back on her opponent over outsourcing, asserting that "the Trump hotel right here in Las Vegas was made with Chinese steel."

In a discussion on foreign policy, she poked fun at his reality TV career, saying, "On the day when I was in the Situation Room monitoring the raid that brought Osama bin laden to justice, he was hosting 'The Celebrity Apprentice.'"

Clinton also pressed her advantage when the issue of Trump’s behavior toward women came up again. The GOP nominee has faced accusations of sexual misconduct from several women amid the fallout from a 2005 recording in which he said that his fame allowed him to grab women by the genitals.

Though Trump sought to cast doubt on the accusers’ stories, Clinton asserted that “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger.” She also cast his remarks as part of a broader "pattern of divisiveness.”

This idea of Trump as a fundamentally unfit candidate for the presidency has been a common thread through Clinton’s campaign, from her own words on the stump to her TV advertising.

The GOP nominee’s remarks on the election’s outcome seem likely to make that charge even harder to shake.

That is a problem he simply cannot afford, given the steepness of the climb he already faces.