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Clinton campaign hopes for a knockout blow on Sunday (by Trump, against himself)

Clinton campaign hopes for a knockout blow on Sunday (by Trump, against himself)
(LAT)

In the week and a half since their first debate, Hillary Clinton has gained steadily against Donald Trump in opinion polls in key swing-state matchups, building Democratic confidence about the election.

Without question, Trump hurt his chances in that first encounter. Now, with the second faceoff scheduled for Sunday — a town hall with questions from voters — Clinton backers hope he'll repeat form and seal the deal.

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Good afternoon, I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in the presidential campaign and highlight some particularly insightful stories.

IT'S ALL ABOUT TRUMP

The 2016 campaign has focused relentlessly on the frailties of the two main candidates. Repeatedly, whichever candidate has been at the center of attention has suffered.

In that environment, Trump's unslakeable thirst for the spotlight — and the eagerness of television networks to provide it — has turned into a liability.

In mid-September, with Clinton's health suddenly dominating headlines, Trump gained ground. Polls showed him closing in on Clinton, even in states like Pennsylvania that had seemed safe for the Democrat.

But Trump seemingly wanted the spotlight back. He seized it with an ill-timed, poorly executed, half-retraction of his longstanding campaign to raise doubts about President Obama's citizenship.

Then, at the debate, Clinton successfully baited him into a fight with a Latina beauty pageant winner, Alicia Machado. Trump spent the subsequent week not only feuding with the former Miss Universe, but griping about the debate moderator, Lester Holt, and whining about his microphone — a complaint that First Lady Michelle Obama lampooned in a memorable, and widely circulated, putdown. 

Amid a flood of polls showing Clinton reestablishing her lead in crucial states, Trump's campaign arranged for him to take questions Thursday night at a town hall in New Hampshire — a tune up for Sunday's big event, they said.

Trump, publicly disdainful, as always, of debate preparation, insisted that the New Hampshire session wasn't a practice round. About that, at least, he was unquestionably correct. He took questions for only a bit more than 30 minutes, the hand-picked audience included no one but supporters, and the questions mostly seemed designed to boost the candidate's famously tender ego, rather than prepare him for the challenge ahead.

Meantime, Tuesday's vice presidential debate did little, if anything to shift the campaign. Viewership for that contest was the smallest since 2000. And, as Cathy Decker noted in her analysis, Trump's running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, sometimes seemed to have more of an eye on the 2020 election than on this one.

Here's a transcript of the most important exchanges of that debate. And here's a terrific piece by Noah Bierman about how the biggest VP debate moment in history almost didn't happen.

Sunday's second presidential debate will easily eclipse the vice presidential show. Town hall debates offer big opportunities to candidates, but, as Decker explains, they also pose unique risks.

With Obama's standing among voters moving steadily higher, providing a boost to his party, the economy continuing slow, but steady growth and third party candidates fading in the polls, the pressure is building on Trump to deliver a convincing victory that could shift the campaign's path. So far, there's little indication that's something he's capable of.

WATCH WITH US SUNDAY NIGHT

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Analysis, fact-checking, video of key moments and our round-by-round scorecard, we'll have it all for you on Sunday. The debate starts at 9 p.m. EDT/6 p.m. PDT. Join us on Trail Guide, our home for all things politics.

AND ABOUT THAT POLL

The USC Dornsife/LA Times tracking poll has been tracing Trump's and Clinton's trajectories since early summer. The poll consistently has shown better results for Trump than most surveys.

In recent days, the poll has shown movement toward Clinton. How far will that trend go? And how fast? We update the poll every day, so keep checking back.

Meantime, why is it different? Here are answers to frequently asked questions about the poll. And here's what the poll tells us about Trump's potential path forward.

DON'T FORGET THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE

As our interactive electoral map shows, Clinton currently leads in more than enough states to secure the White House. But if the race tightens again, some of those states could begin to change.

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Winning requires 270 electoral votes. How to get there? We've updated the map with our best estimates. Now you get to play political strategist and try out as many scenarios as you like.

STORIES NOT TO MISS

How much do allies pay for the protection provided by U.S. troops? A lot more than Donald Trump says, reports David Cloud.

Pennsylvania was once merely important in presidential elections. Now, it's become Hillary Clinton's firewall. Decker looks at why the state has become so crucial to the Democrats.

Our colleague Veronica Rocha went to Honduras and talked with people who knew Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, when he was a 22-year-old missionary there in 1980. Read her account of how Honduras helped Kaine find his mission in life.

Seema Mehta, Anthony Pesce and Maloy Moore dived into the data on campaign contributors, looking at the big-money Republicans who helped fund Trump's rivals. They found that 95% are keeping their wallets shut.

Bobbie Kilberg, a prominent GOP fundraiser who has served in three GOP administrations has, along with her husband, given to Republicans for decades. Not to Trump.

"Bill and I have put our focus … where we are comfortable," she said. "I will leave it at that."

Speaking of big donors, two of the largest on either side happen to be partners in the same hugely profitable hedge fund. Robert Mercer and James Simons teamed up to conquer Wall Street. Now, one is bankrolling Clinton and the other Trump. Read Evan Halper and Joe Tanfani's story about two of the biggest billionaires bankrolling the 2016 campaign.

Finally, Decker writes about the data showing a trend in the electorate that Trump has accelerated, much to the GOP's dismay: Asian American voters are spurning Trump — and threatening to shun the Republican party for years to come.

QUESTIONS ABOUT TRUMP, CLINTON? WE'VE GOT ANSWERS

Where they stand on issues, what they've done in their lives, their successes, their failures, what their presidencies might look like: We've been writing about Clinton and Trump for years, and we've pulled the best of that content together to make finding what you want to know easier. So check out All Things Trump and All Things Clinton.

LOGISTICS

If you like this newsletter, tell your friends to sign up.

That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in the 2016 campaign with our Trail Guide, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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