About 30 minutes into Wednesday’s presidential debate, Donald Trump was doing well. He was making points that were rational to both his point of view and that of millions of Americans.
I thought his supporters would love his strong answer on abortion, for instance.
“I am putting pro-life justices on the (Supreme) court,” Trump said. “I will say this: It will go back to the states, and the states will then make a determination.”
He made sense on his signature issue of border control, tying it to the influx drugs into this country. He temporarily set the internet on fire with his statement, “We have some bad hombres here and we’re going to get them out.”
When Hillary Clinton tried to evade the issue of open borders, Trump scored big with a well-timed counterattack that pointed out her pivot.
But you knew that at some point, Mount St. Donald would erupt, and by now you know when that happened. With Clinton grinning widely on the split-screen TV shot as he spoke, Trump said “I’ll keep you in suspense” when asked if he will accept the outcome of the Nov. 8 election.
The little gremlins that controlled much of Trump’s campaign were back in charge. The desperate attempts by his handlers afterward at spinning that admission told Americans to expect more chaos from an election that crashed through the barriers of civility long ago.
Maybe Trump’s reaction to the result is the only suspense that’s left in this election, though. With early voting underway in many states, including Florida, and Clinton leading comfortably in the polls, it’s hard to see Trump making up the necessary ground to win the White House.
But then what?
Will he file lawsuits in select states to contest the results where he lost? Will he incite his more rabid followers to protest with violence? And really, after spending more than a year dominating news shows and headlines, is there any reason to believe he will go quietly when this is over?
THE FINAL SCORECARD: Clinton scored big, in my opinion, with her passionate defense of women’s health as it relates to abortion rights. Whether you agree with abortion or not, Clinton encapsulated why it matters so much to millions of women.
“I have met with women who toward the end of their pregnancy get the worst news one could get, that their health is in jeopardy if they continue to carry to term or that something terrible has happened or just been discovered about the pregnancy,” she said.
THE PUPPET MASTER: Clinton was ready when Trump said Russian President Vladimir Putin had “no respect” for her or President Barack Obama.
“Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States,” she said, unloading the best zinger of the night.
Later, Trump tweeted an image of Hillary as a Wall Street puppet.
OH, THAT EXPLAINS IT: One of Trump’s central themes has been bringing jobs back to America’s hard-hit steel industry. Clinton pounced there, pointing out that Trump used steel purchased from China to build towers in Chicago and Las Vegas, site of this debate.
He didn’t deny it, but offered the pithy reason that, “Why did you make it possible for me to do that?”
Apparently, he was referring to Clinton’s time in the U.S. Senate.
DO THEY VOTE? Trump’s campaign has been marked by bizarre and unsubstantiated claims, but even by that standard the one he made about the ongoing attempt by the Iraqi army’s attempt to regain the strategic city of Mosul was a head-scratcher.
“The only reason they did it is because she’s running, they want to look tough, they want to look good,” Trump said.
Clinton answered dryly, saying she was “amazed that he seems to think that the Iraqi government and our allies launched the attack on Mosul to help me in the election.”
THE FINAL SCORE: Trump got better as the three debates went along, but that’s because he set the bar so low in the first one. Clinton fell off a little in the second standoff, but was on her game from the start Wednesday and seemed to carry the night.
A lot of it depends which candidate you like, though. Advocates on either side are inclined to overlook mistakes and overreact to the strong points. After three debates, what did people learn?
Trump: He did nothing to improve his standing overall with women and minorities, two segments he trails Clinton by large margins. He can be the bully he has been painted to be. He plays loose with the facts. He is better when he dials it down a notch, but maintaining that focus for 90 minutes in a debate is a skill he lacks.
Clinton: She made it through three debates without any significant slips. She can be evasive about her considerable baggage, but she succeeded in painting Trump as a bully and unprepared.
The suspense is gone. Barring something catastrophic in the final days of this campaign, we sum things up with these two words: