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Five things to watch for at the Vegas debate

Greg Nash

LAS VEGAS — Place your bets. 

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will take the stage here on Wednesday night for their final presidential, giving the candidates their last best chance to make their case for the White House.

{mosads}The Sin City debate — held at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, just off the strip — seems a fitting send-off for a wild, unpredictable and ugly presidential campaign.

Here are five things to watch for as the candidates square off beneath the neon lights of the nation’s gambling capital:

 

Will they shake hands?

In a sign of how much disdain the candidates have for one another, Trump and Clinton declined to shake hands as they took the stage at the start of their second debate.

Instead, they greeted each other with a cold “hello,” then shuffled to within about 3 feet of one another as they turned to face the audience.

Trump was just minutes removed from a press conference with three women who have accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual assault or harassment and one whose rapist Hillary Clinton was court-appointed to defend in 1975. Meanwhile, Clinton was preparing to unload on Trump for his obscene remarks about groping women.

The moment was satirized on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, in which Alec Baldwin’s Trump and Kate McKinnon’s Clinton circled each other like jiu jitsu fighters, extending their hands for a shake but recoiling before they touched.

Advisers to both nominees are surely choreographing the opening moment to ensure their candidate doesn’t come off looking bad.

That opening moment could be a sign of how nasty things will get.

 

Does Trump have any wild cards left?

It’s almost a given that Trump, the Republican nominee, will unload on his Democratic rival with everything he has.

Women and independents have been fleeing Trump’s campaign, helping Clinton to open up a comfortable lead in recent national polls. The map of battleground states leans strongly in Clinton’s favor, making her the heavy favorite as the clock ticks down to the finish.

Trump needs a campaign-altering moment or two if he’s going to change the trajectory of the race with less than three weeks to go before Election Day.

The GOP nominee’s press conference with Bill Clinton’s accusers at the last debate was an attempt to rattle Hillary Clinton.

It didn’t work.

Since then, Trump has thrown everything he has at Clinton, saying she would be jailed if he wins the White House and demanding they both take a drug test before the debate to see if performance-enhancing chemicals are keeping her competitive.

Trump will have his pick of controversies to exploit on Wednesday night, aided by the WikiLeaks email dumps and the release of documents pertaining to the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s use of a personal email server while she was secretary of State.

Does Trump have a new stunt or revelation up his sleeve? Will it matter?

 

Does Clinton play it safe or go for the kill?

Trump is on the ropes. Will Clinton go for the knockout blow on Wednesday night?

Polls show that Clinton won the second debate, but some of her supporters were frustrated that she was not more aggressive in going after Trump, who limped in amid backlash over his lewd remarks about women and a civil war in the Republican Party over his candidacy.

Clinton might view the debate as her opportunity to vanquish Trump and lay the groundwork for a governing mandate.

Trump’s polling weakness has provided the Clinton campaign with an opportunity to expand the map into traditionally red states like Alaska, Georgia, Utah and Arizona.

Control of the Senate is a toss-up, and if Trump’s free-fall continues, the Republican majority in the House might be in play, too.

The pressure will be on for Clinton not to just win but also to deliver for down-ballot Democrats as they play for seats that seemed out of reach not long ago.

That means rolling the dice with an aggressive debate, similar to the one her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), tried for in the vice presidential debate.

It could mean hitting Trump where he’s weakest by bringing up his female accusers and crude remarks. But that could move against her by provoking Trump to go nuclear on the Clintons’ personal lives.

The aggressiveness backfired on Kaine, showing there is risk in such a strategy.

And the WikiLeaks email dump revealed what insiders have long known: Clinton’s inner circle and campaign team are cautious to a fault.

They may decide the best course of action is to duck into victory formation and run out the clock with a safe debate performance that seeks to avoid riling Trump.

 

Will the moderator make a difference?

Trump and many conservatives believe the moderators were on Clinton’s side in the first two debates.

Veteran NBC newsman Lester Holt opened himself up to criticism for failing to ask Clinton about her private email server or foreign donations to her family’s charitable foundation.

And Trump openly warred with the moderators at the second debate, accusing CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC News’s Martha Raddatz of allowing Clinton to speak past her allotted time and lashing out at them for cutting his attacks on Clinton short.

Those attacks resonated among conservatives, even if Trump ended the last debate with slightly more speaking time than Clinton.

Republicans are hopeful that Fox News’s Chris Wallace — who has a solid reputation as a nonpartisan journalist — will make Clinton’s life miserable.

Wallace has said he won’t fact-check the candidates in real time — a practice that has been the focal point of fierce debate within reporting circles — leaving the candidates to pick their spots and make a convincing case for their version of the truth on their own.

As an anchor at the conservative news outlet, Wallace is more likely to focus on issues that other media outlets are apt to gloss over.

Expect him to ask Clinton about an email exchange, revealed by WikiLeaks, in which one of her top aides disparaged Catholicism and Christianity.

The newly released documents pertaining to the investigation of Clinton’s personal server will surely lead to a question about Trump’s allegations of “pay-for-play” at the State Department.

And the WikiLeaks dump also revealed Clinton’s support for “open borders,” her differing views in public and in private, and a trove of other data points that Fox News has covered with relish.

Of course, Wallace was no patsy in the GOP primary debates, so Trump can expect the tough treatment will flow both ways.

 

What will their closing arguments be?

This is it.

The third debate is the last time the candidates will be seen by this many people. The first two debates brought between 65 million and 80 million viewers each.

For Trump, it’s the best shot for a game-changing moment. For Clinton, it’s an opportunity to seal the deal.

Trump has signaled that he will make this a “change” election to the end.

The question voters are struggling over is whether Trump will be a responsible agent of change or a reckless danger who will burn the system to the ground.

So far, a strong majority of voters view him as the latter, with vast swaths of the electorate saying he is not commander in chief material.

Trump must convince voters that he can be trusted as a leader.

Clinton’s closing argument is similarly complicated.

She is viewed as an untrustworthy and opportunistic career politician — a considerable liability in the year of the outsider.

Still, recent polls show Clinton’s base is more energized than it once was, helping her to pull away from Trump.

She will be looking to maintain that momentum by giving undecided voters a reason to vote for her, not just against Trump.

Tags Bill Clinton Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Tim Kaine

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