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Five questions looming over the third, and final, presidential debate

By Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns

LAS VEGAS – Donald Trump has had possibly the most dismal October of any presidential nominee in recent history, and the month is just more than half over. Facing accusations of sexual harassment and criticism for vulgar and demeaning comments toward women, Trump limps into Wednesday’s debate, the final one against Hillary Clinton, with polls showing him losing in nearly every state he must win. The televised event at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, begins at 9 p.m. and will be moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox News.

Trump has invited two eyebrow-raising guests to Wednesday’s debate: President Obama’s estranged half brother, Malik Obama, and Pat Smith, mother of a U.S. official killed in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.

Much can happen in politics over three weeks, and this election has been full of surprises. But by lashing out at the news media; criticizing House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., his party’s highest-ranking official; and saying without evidence that the electoral system is “rigged,” Trump appears less intent on finding a path to victory than on grasping for scapegoats to explain away an eventual loss.

How he and Clinton approach their climactic third debate will go a long way toward determining just how sordid the remainder of this race will be – and how difficult the healing process will be once it ends. Here are five questions that are looming over the debate:

Is Trump worried about the effects of the campaign on his brand?

Trump is already the most disliked presidential nominee in the history of polling, and his reputation is unlikely to recover if he continues to peddle conspiracy theories about election fraud and mock the looks of the women who have accused him of sexual assault. Another slashing performance against Clinton could push away even more undecided voters, though at this point there may be few swing voters left for Trump to alienate.

But if he has little left to lose as a politician, the Republican nominee still has significant interests at stake in the race. Many of his business ventures depend on the value of his personal brand, and at some point, he may feel pressure – from family members and business partners – to protect his investments by tempering his machine-gunner’s instincts.

There’s been no evidence of such restraint from Trump, however, and a do-or-die debate against his Democratic rival may be an unlikely moment for him to shift in that direction.

Can Clinton find the right tone?

Trump is not the only one confronting a stark choice about how to proceed. With her campaign expanding to compete in traditionally Republican-leaning states and her advantage growing in most of the battlegrounds, the former secretary of state is well positioned as the race enters its final 20 days. Because Clinton is now so heavily favored to win, the debate offers an opportunity for her to start looking beyond the Nov. 8 election and toward unifying a country that has been divided by an ugly campaign.

After praising first lady Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high” credo, Clinton now has a chance to turn that advice into action. And doing so would not simply be an exercise in high-mindedness to win plaudits from centrist commentators. By vowing to represent all Americans after the election, including Trump’s supporters, she could also disarm an opponent who relishes confrontation but has little aptitude for conciliation.

Will Trump torch his own party?

Snubbed by Ryan in the final month of the campaign, Trump has seemed as eager to attack turncoat leaders in his own party as to make the case against Clinton. The billionaire businessman and reality TV personality from Manhattan has reserved special venom for Ryan, blasting him as a weak leader with bad ideas about trade and immigration and suggesting that Ryan might be sabotaging Trump’s campaign to pave the way for a presidential run of his own in four years.

Will Clinton seek to reposition herself?

Republicans have been overjoyed that the WikiLeaks hacks of Clinton’s private speeches and the email account of her campaign chairman have offered new fodder against her, or have at least diverted attention from Trump’s inflammatory campaign. But the revelations, to date, have done more to confirm the suspicions of those on the far left than those on the far right: Namely, that she is a cautious, at times plotting, left-of-center Democrat given more to pragmatism than purity.

Now that she is comfortably ahead in “blue state” America and making incursions into conservative “red states” such as Arizona and Utah, will Clinton flash some of the centrism she has displayed in private?

She is unlikely, for example, to suddenly reverse course on her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership or pledge to enact Simpson-Bowles, the moribund deficit-reduction plan. But the debate offers her the chance to reach out to moderates and even some Republicans unwilling to support their nominee but still uneasy about her.

Will the issue of sexual assault dominate the debate?

After a week’s worth of sexual assault and harassment accusations against Trump, there may be moments that feel more like a courtroom drama than a presidential debate.
Trump has never convincingly rebutted the numerous stories from women who say he groped them without consent. On the contrary, he has veered from ridiculing his accusers to asserting flatly, and falsely, that their stories have been debunked.

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