As they strode on to the stage after being announced, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump made it clear what the rest of the evening was going to be like. They barely acknowledged each other and did not even shake hands as candidates usually do.
In the ugliest debate yet, Trump, who seemed angry and wound up and was constantly on his feet even when not speaking, attacked Clinton on her husband former president Bill Clinton's infidelities, threatened to jail her over her use of a private email server if he was elected president, and repeatedly called her a liar, wagging a finger at her.
Clinton, who was even-tempered and smiled often during the debate, was ready for the shot at her husband and deflected it easily. She said none of what Trump was saying was true, used the revelation of a tape of him to reanimate her case that he had no respect for women, and went on to question his suitability for office.
This was to be a make-or-break debate for Trump, who is facing a massive revolt in his Republican party with leading lights rescinding their endorsement of him after the release of the 2005 tape on which he bragged about groping women and forcing himself on them. His poll numbers, which had been tanking after a bad first debate, were a worry too, compounded by an unseemly spat with a former beauty queen. Even his own running mate, Mike Pence, had seemed dubious.
But Pence liked what he saw on Sunday and congratulated Trump on a "big debate win", which, however, seemed more a wish than fact in the absence of credible polls. But there was a sense among Republicans that Trump had survived the night, and was not knocked out, as many had feared and expected.
"Hillary Clinton failed to do the GOP the favour of landing a knockout blow on Donald Trump Sunday night," wrote Bill Kristol, editor of the right-leaning Weekly Standard and an avowed Trump critic. And this from someone who wanted to see Trump destroyed.
It was still unclear if Trump had stanched the bleeding in his campaign as many pundits said he did, but he seemed more disciplined on issues compared to the first debate — although still supremely muddled. He disagreed with Pence on the way to deal with Syria, for instance, displaying a stunning disconnect.
But the highlights of the evening were, as expected, exchanges about Trump's tape and his attack on Clinton about sex scandals involving her husband, who was in the audience, as were three women who had accused him of sexually assault.
Asked if he still thought it was "locker-room talk" as he had first described his remarks on the tape, Trump said yes, and added he was not proud of it and that he had apologised for it to his family and to the American people.
“But,” he said, turning the exchange around to attack the Clintons as he had been expected to, "Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women — attacked them viciously."
"She brings up words that I said 11 years ago," Trump ploughed on, "I think it’s disgraceful, and she should be ashamed of herself, to tell you the truth."
Clinton had prepared for this moment. "So much of what he just said is not right," she said, launching a broader attack on Trump’s temperament and attitude. "He never apologises for anything to anyone,” she said, citing President Barack Obama, whom Trump had accused of not being born in the US, and a Mexican-descent judge whose heritage, Trump had said, disqualified him from trying a case against Trump University.
"He owes the president an apology, he owes our country an apology," Clinton said.
Trump shot back that Clinton should apologise for deleting her emails, referring to her use of a private server as secretary of state. He said, if elected, he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her and that she will be in jail.
The debate, which was being called the most sordid in the history of presidential debates and the most tweeted about, ended on a sunny note though. In response to a question, both candidates found something positive to say about each other.
Clinton said she admired Trump's children, who were there in the audience, as she found them "incredibly able and devoted". Trump said he respected Clinton's determination to never give up: "She is a fighter."