Donald Trump came into the third and final presidential debate in Las Vegas needing to change the race.
Trump, who used to host high profile heavyweight boxing matches in Atlantic City’s glory days in the late 1980s, knew he was trailing on the scorecards. Like some of the boxers he had watched over the years, Trump needed a knockdown, maybe even a knockout in the final debate. While rare, come-from-behind last second knockouts do happen in heavyweight title fights: Mike Weaver caught John Tate in the final moments of their fight back in 1980 while the always colorful Shannon Briggs took out Sergei Liakhovich at the end of their battle 10 years ago.
Heading into the debate Wednesday night, Trump was behind in the polls. His downward momentum had been spiraling out of control over the past few weeks following poor performances in the past two debates and facing charges of sexual assault from at least nine different women. Trump and his surrogates insisted they were ahead but polls of some of the largest traditionally secure Republican states -- Arizona, Georgia, even Texas and, yes, Utah -- were starting to get close. Instead of going after Hillary Clinton, Trump often seemed more content in the final weeks of the campaign to rehash Bill Clinton’s scandals and go after Paul Ryan and other Republicans who weren’t behind him 100 percent. Trump was already warning the election results could be fixed, even as his Democratic rival started pulling ahead.
Despite expectations that he would go after Clinton, Trump started calm and subdued as they debated the Supreme Court. Appearing far better prepared than he did in the first two debates, Trump showed a little more spark as the debate turned to immigration. But that round turned to Russian policy, with Clinton accusing Trump of being Putin’s strongman. That should have been an area where Trump scored points, especially as immigration is one of his calling cards and Clinton is vulnerable there. But Chris Wallace -- even with his Fox News background -- let the debate spiral out of control and Clinton’s jab about Trump refusing to agree with American intelligence reports that Russia was behind the WikiLeaks revelations landed.
Next up was the economy, which should have been a selling point for Trump with his business background. But even there, Trump turned back to foreign affairs before insisting jobs were leaving the country, even saying that jobs were fleeing swing states, including pointing to Florida by name. That would be news to Trump’s good ally Rick Scott, who has made job growth the cornerstone of his six years in Tallahassee. Trump got back on the economy but he could have scored more points on the issue.
Wallace turned to the reports of sexual assault and Trump tried to throw the blame on the Clinton campaign. They battled over temperament with both candidates throwing punches and jumping in on each other. In probably his most damning exchange of the night, he refused to say for sure he will accept the election's results. When Wallace asked him the question, Trump didn’t definitively answer and called Clinton “guilty” of crimes. Clinton offered a surgical account of how Trump always made the “rigged” argument when he lost and then made a case that accepting elections was a core part of the American experiment for 240 years. Trump fired back on the Clinton email scandal -- but kept the door open that he could think the fix will be in if he loses.
The debate turned to the Middle East and Trump went after Barack Obama’s and Clinton’s policies in Syria before they exchanged shots over supporting the invasion of Iraq 13 years ago and tangled over the national debt.
It was a far more subdued performance from Trump than his first two debates, but the big story was Trump’s refusal to say he will accept the election results. His performance will probably help stop the bleeding in states like Texas and Georgia, which the GOP can’t afford to lose. Trump’s flippant “I’ll keep you in suspense” line will be the memorable moment of the debate, even as Republicans -- including Mike Pence, Marco Rubio and plenty of others -- grow increasingly critical of Trump’s insistence the election is rigged. That was the story of the night, ignoring centuries of tradition going back to Thomas Jefferson gracefully conceding to John Adams back in 1796 in the nation’s first contested presidential election.
“Good luck with that, Hillary,” Trump taunted Clinton during their exchange over letting in Syrian refugees. Some pundits pointed to this as Trump raising the white flag. That’s probably not what Trump intended, but the likelihood is growing that Clinton will win in less than three weeks. Certainly, the closing statements offered that impression. Clinton made her case while Trump couldn’t resist a last shot at her in his final pitch.
Trump didn’t score the needed knockdown in the final round and is looking at a loss -- probably by unanimous decision -- on Election Day. The final debate didn’t change that.