The final presidential debate on Wednesday could be the last chance for Republican Donald Trump to shake up the dynamics of a race that’s tilting toward Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Flush with fundraising cash and rising poll numbers, Clinton has largely vanished from the campaign trail as Trump deals with the latest chaos rocking his campaign.
The fallout from his incendiary remarks in the “Access Hollywood” videotape prompted a string of women to come forward with claims he sexually harassed or assaulted them – and dozens of high-profile Republicans to abandon his campaign. He trails Clinton in both national polls and must-win battleground states.
Trump has responded with a scorched-earth strategy that makes him an even more unpredictable foe. With little left to lose, he’s attacked both Clinton and fellow Republicans with a simmering fury that could both enliven his core supporters and turn off undecided voters.
Clinton, meanwhile, must wrestle with whether to confront Trump at Wednesday’s debate in Las Vegas, just as she did in the second debate to mixed reviews, or make a broader statement about her vision for the presidency. Her pivot to red-state voters — the campaign said this week that it was intensifying efforts in Arizona and other conservative states — adds another wrinkle to her debate strategy.
Here are some of the key questions to watch:
What will an unshackled Trump do at the debate?
“It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me,” Trump tweeted after House Speaker Paul Ryan effectively conceded the presidential race, saying he would no longer defend the GOP nominee and instead focus on down-ticket races.
There’s no telling what that means for Trump. He has insulted, taunted and shouted over his rivals at most every other debate — a tactic that helped score points with supporters and rattle his opponents. And before the second presidential debate against Clinton, he appeared with several women who accused her husband of sexual misconduct.
He’s since upped the ante by sowing doubts about the backbone of the nation’s democracy, claiming that the election is “rigged” at many polling sites across the nation. That brought condemnation from Republican elections officials but also raised questions — and fears — about what he would say next.
Will Clinton take the high road?
In the midst of the second debate, Clinton borrowed a line from first lady Michelle Obama to describe her strategy to combat Trump: “When they go low, you go high.”
Yet she has shown little affinity toward staking out higher ground. In the first debate, she tried to needle and provoke him, successfully triggering Trump to launch a damaging rant against a former beauty queen. In the second, she attacked and counterattacked, earning more tepid results.
With the political winds at her back, though, she faces a choice.
She could joust with Trump for a third time, hoping to energize her more skeptical supporters. Or she could largely ignore her opponent to deliver a more optimistic message, one that dovetails with her recent push to expand her campaign into red-state territory.
How will Trump respond to new claims of sexual assault?
The New York businessman has been besieged by claims of assaulting women since the release of the 2005 video showing him bragging that he can harass women because he’s a star. He’s denied each one of them, calling the women “horrible liars” and claiming he’s the victim of a “political smear campaign.”
But Wednesday’s debate gives him the biggest platform he’ll have left in the campaign to try to combat the notion that he mistreats women. And two key audiences will be watching intently.
Evangelical voters formed the core of his support in the GOP primaries, and some polls show their support for Trump is starting to slip.
Trump is also at risk of becoming the first Republican since Bob Dole in 1996 to lose the vote of married women on Election Day unless he can steady his campaign messaging.
What will Clinton say about her latest email problems?
It’s been vastly overshadowed by Trump’s campaign problems, but the hacking of campaign Chairman John Podesta’s email account has raised new questions about Clinton’s vision.
She’s likely to face questions about her cozy relationship with Wall Street and big banks, about her dream of a hemispheric common market with “open trade and open borders” and her campaign aides’ views on religious conservatives.
They play into a broader theme championed by Trump and other Republicans that Clinton is profoundly untrustworthy and that the average American voter has been misled about what she really believes about the issues.
Wednesday’s debate could be her last chance before the vote to reach a national audience of millions of undecided or skeptical voters and try to convince them otherwise.
20 days until vote
Wednesday marks 20 days until Americans vote in federal and state races on Nov. 8. All year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has brought you the key moments in those races, and it will continue to cover the campaign’s main events, examine the issues and analyze candidates’ finance reports until the last ballot is counted. You can follow the developments on the AJC’s politics page at http://www.myajc.com/s/news/georgia-politics/ and in the Political Insider blog at http://www.myajc.com/s/news/political-insider/. You can also track our coverage on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GAPoliticsNews or Facebook at https://facebook.com/gapoliticsnewsnow.