Bitter exchanges on future of nation dominate debate

New York Times News Service

In a final debate on Wednesday that swung wildly between civil and caustic, Hillary Clinton charged that Donald Trump would be “a puppet” of President Vladimir Putin of Russia if elected, while he argued that Putin had “outsmarted and outplayed” her as secretary of state.

Trump, under enormous pressure to halt Clinton’s steady rise in opinion polls, sought to rally conservative voters by promising to deport unauthorized immigrants, support gun rights and appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn abortion rights.

But he also lashed out repeatedly at Clinton, arguing that her campaign was behind the nine women who have come forward to accuse him of unwanted sexual advances and assaults.

Trump also insisted, as he has in recent days, that the general election has been rigged against him, and he twice refused to say that he would accept its result.

“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said. “I will keep you in suspense.'’

“That’s horrifying,” Clinton replied. “I am appalled that someone who is the nominee of one of our two major parties would take that position.”

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump speak during their presidential debate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Oct. 19, 2016. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Clinton mostly sought to strike a positive tone and reach out to undecided and independent voters, but also to Republicans and others who are concerned about Trump’s judgment on national security. She zeroed in on Russia, arguing that Trump was too complimentary to Putin and had failed to condemn Russian espionage against her campaign’s internal email.

If Clinton was laying bait, Trump took it.

“I don’t know Putin — he said nice things about me — if we got along well, that would be good,” Trump said. “Look, Putin — from everything I see — has no respect for this person.”

“That’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States,” Clinton shot back in one of the toughest lines of the night.

“No puppet, no puppet,” Trump sputtered. “You’re the puppet.” He quickly recovered and said, “She has been outsmarted and outplayed worse than anybody I’ve ever seen in any government, whatsoever.”

Last ditch: With 20 days left before Election Day and early voting already underway in Florida, Ohio and several other key states, the debate felt less like an argument between equals than a last-ditch attempt by a fading candidate, Trump, to save himself.

Trump sought throughout the debate, held at the University of Nevada campus in Las Vegas, to recover from a politically damaging three weeks. He has been unable to gain traction in the polls from his strategy of assailing the Clintons as corrupt and immoral; the news media as biased and bent on rigging the election against him; and the nine women who have come forward to accuse him of unwanted sexual advances as liars and, in some cases, unattractive — language that has alienated many female voters and made others question Trump’s temperament.

A presidential debate watch party held by the Democratic Volunteer Center of Mountain View, in Mountain View, Calif., Oct. 19, 2016. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

Trump said, in response to a question from the debate moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, that the claims of the women had been “debunked” and that they had been put forward by Clinton’s campaign.

But after he denied ridiculing the looks of the women accusing him of sexual harassment — “I did not say that,” he repeated three times — Clinton repeated nearly verbatim his two comments from last week about the appearances of a pair of his accusers.

“Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger,” she said. “He goes after their dignity, their self-worth; there’s not a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like.”

After Clinton finished an extended condemnation, Trump said only: “Nobody has more respect for women than I do, nobody.”

Immigration: On immigration, Trump argued that Clinton wanted to give immigrants in the country illegally “amnesty” and that “she wants to have open borders.”

“We have to have strong borders, we have to keep the drugs out of our country — right now we’re getting the drugs, they’re getting the cash,” he added. “We have some bad hombres here, and we’re going to get them out.”

Clinton recalled meeting a young girl in Las Vegas whose parents had been threatened, and noted that Trump has said that every unauthorized immigrant would ultimately be subject to deportation.

Hillary Clinton speaks during the third and final presidential debate, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Oct. 19, 2016. (Josh Haner/The New York Times)

“I don’t want to rip families apart,” Clinton said. “I don’t want to see the deportation force that Donald has talked about in action in our country.” She added that Trump’s focus on deportation would “rip our country apart.”

At several points, Clinton tried to bait Trump into an outburst, such as when she said that he “choked” during his meeting this summer with the president of Mexico when he did not press him on Mexico paying to build a border wall.

But Trump pivoted to attack former President Bill Clinton’s administration for supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement and assailed Clinton for her past comments supporting “open borders” in the Western Hemisphere.

Abortion: The two candidates also tangled over abortion rights. After initially declining to flatly say whether he would support overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, Trump conceded that the justices he would appoint to the court would do just that.

“If we put another two or perhaps three justices on, that’s really what will happen,” he said. “That’ll happen automatically in my opinion.”

Hillary Clinton responded with a full-throated defense of Roe and abortion rights.

“The government has no business in the decisions that women make,” she said.

Trump retorted, “If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.”

Clinton appeared visibly angry. “You should meet with some of the women I’ve met with,” she said, accusing him of using “scare rhetoric.”

Donald Trump speaks during the presidential debate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Oct. 19, 2016. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Supreme Court: Clinton used the opening question about the Supreme Court to make a broad appeal to voters to consider the future of the United States under her presidency or a Trump administration. “What kind of country are we going to be? What kind of opportunities are we going to provide for our citizens, what kind of rights will Americans have?”

Trump asserted that if Clinton won, the Second Amendment would become “a very, very small replica of what we have now.” He also said he would appoint justices who “will interpret the constitution the way the founders want it interpreted.”

Clinton quickly tried to undercut Trump on guns.

“I support the Second Amendment,” she said, noting that she had lived in Arkansas and represented upstate New York where many gun owners lived. “When I think about what I need to do, we have 33,000 people a year who die from guns. I think we need comprehensive background checks” and to close loopholes that make it easier for Americans to obtain guns.

Trump would not drop the issue, though, and portrayed Clinton as overly emotional in her reaction to the Supreme Court decision in the case that allowed an individual right to bear arms.

“She was extremely angry about it,” Trump said. “Hillary was extremely upset.”

But Clinton said that her reaction was based on deep concern that even toddlers would be in jeopardy under the ruling. She then pivoted and argued that Trump was doing the bidding of “the gun lobby,” noting that “Donald has been strong supported by the NRA.”

Trump has intensified his hard-edged comments in the final weeks of the campaign, instead of focusing on broadening his appeal and wooing swing voters. In the face of widespread condemnation for vulgar and demeaning comments toward women, he has mocked his accusers while turning his fire toward the news media and Speaker Paul D. Ryan and insisting, without evidence, that the election is being “rigged” against him.

He has even veered into the realm of the conspiratorial, inveighing against global bankers who he claims are, with Clinton’s consent, determined to destroy America’s sovereignty.

Trump’s conduct has alarmed mainstream Republicans who have long thought Clinton was likely to win but had been hoping their controversial standard-bearer could at least run a competitive race through Election Day to avoid undermining the rest of the party’s candidates.

Clinton, seemingly intent not only on soundly beating Trump but also on humiliating him, has responded to Trump’s campaign misfortunes by launching an offensive into a handful of conservative-leaning states, including Arizona.

The first lady, Michelle Obama, perhaps the campaign’s most treasured surrogate, was set to speak at a rally in Phoenix on Thursday and the campaign announced this week that they would be directing over $2 million into the state.

Clinton aides are also eyeing Georgia, which has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1992, and even Utah, where Mormon contempt for Trump has created perhaps the unlikeliest battleground in recent presidential history.