It was to be a do-or-die debate for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and he came out swinging, an hour and a half ahead of the session itself. In a new conference, Trump paraded three women who accused former president Bill Clinton of sexually assaulting them, giving a clear indication he wanted to play hard, and rough.
And that’s exactly what he did.
When the debate took place, he brought up former President Clinton’s infidelities with the accusers in the audience, frequently interrupted rival and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, called her a liar repeatedly, and, at one stage, told her she should be in jail.
Hillary also attacked and needled Trump repeatedly, but did not punch back as forcefully as many would have liked. She kept an even composure, and smiled often in contrast to a seemingly angry and restless Trump.
The first seconds of the debate established the tone for the rest of the night: Trump and Hillary did not shake hands, but walked straight to their seats after taking the stage. The next 90 minutes were “memorable, riveting, combative and nasty”, as one commentator described it.
In the end, Trump survived, and fairly well. He landed enough punches on Clinton to satisfy and re-energise his supporters unnerved by a bad first debate, compounded by an offensive spat with a former beauty queen and capped by a sex-rant that became public on Friday.
Trump’s poll numbers had begun to dip again, with the gap between him and Clinton widening to 4 points on the eve of the debate, compared to 2 points before the first; a large number of leading Republicans withdrew their endorsements after the tape, and there was talk of his campaign nearing a breaking point.
The tape came up fairly early in the debate giving Trump the opportunity to get it out of the way. Asked if he still thought it was “locker-room talk” as he had first described it, he said yes. He said was not proud of it and that he had apologized to his family and to the American people for it. However, he turned 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.”
Hillary had prepared for this moment, of course. “So much of what he just said is not right,” she said, launching a broader attack on his temperament and attitude. “He never apologizes 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,” she said.
Trump shot back that Hillary should apologize for deleting her email, referring to her use of a private email server as secretary of state.
They attacked each other on what, by now, are familiar policy and personal differences; they don’t like each other, clearly. After about 90 minutes of sparring though, the debate ended on a remarkably sunny note when they were asked to comment on one positive about their opponent, over and beyond the rhetoric that clouds their perception of each other.
Hillary remarked about Trump’s children, who were in the audience. “I admire his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald. I don’t agree with nearly anything else he says or does, but I do respect that.”
Trump seemed a little confused if he should take that as a compliment, but eventually took it as one.
About the former secretary of state, he said, “I will say this about Hillary: she doesn’t quit, she doesn’t give up. I respect that. She’s a fighter. I disagree with much of what she is fighting for, I disagree with her judgement, but she does fight hard, and she doesn’t quit, and I consider that to be a very good trait.”