Donald Trump needed a compelling victory in Wednesday’s debate to alter the course of a campaign that has increasingly moved toward
He did not get it.
The final debate was notable for delving into policy matters more than in two prior meetings, and for a more measured performance by Trump, in what was undeniably his best debate.
But whatever good he might have done for himself was flattened in two moments in which he appeared unable to take responsibility for his actions and unwilling to put aside personal disappointment for the nation's good.
The most immediate damage came with the line that dominated post-debate news coverage and is likely to be the debate's most memorable moment: his refusal to say he would accept the results, win or lose, and conform to the country's tradition of a peaceful transfer of power.
He did so in a way that made him look defensive, blaming the media for being “so dishonest and so corrupt,” asserting that millions of people on the voting rolls should not be allowed to cast ballots, and calling
Would he accept the results?, asked moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News.
"I will look at it at the time," Trump said.
Elsewhere in the debate, Trump flatly denied saying things that many voters repeatedly have seen or heard on tape — among them his suggestion that the women who have accused him of sexual abuse were too unattractive to be his targets, his mocking of a disabled reporter, and his support for invading Iraq more than a decade ago.
Unfortunately for Trump, the videos of him saying and doing those things have circulated endlessly this campaign season.
The candidates entered the debate with 20 days left before voters decide the election. The weeks spent on debates have given Clinton a significant lead, one that will be buttressed in the final three weeks by a get-out-the-vote effort that experienced hands in both parties see as superior to Trump's.
In the first debate, Clinton repeatedly baited Trump — over his father's contributions to his business success, his refusal to release his taxes, his treatment of women — and he rose to it. His problems at that first debate and in the ensuing week obliterated his efforts to grab support from restive Democrats who had been growing concerned about Clinton's candidacy.
The second debate descended into a spectacle that overshadowed both of them, but proved more damaging to Trump. Two days after the release of a 2005 video in which he made vulgar comments about his treatment of women, Trump invited as debate guests three women who had accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual offenses. But Trump showed little contrition about his own statements and didn't press his arguments against Clinton forcefully enough to pull himself out of the hole he'd dug.
By the time the final debate began, what had been a near tie in the race, according to the polling averages, had become a Clinton lead of more than 6 percentage points — significantly more than the margin by which
The face-off did show growth on Trump's part. He was less defensive than in the first debate and more disciplined than in the second.
But he also once again displayed what he has not been able to master, including the nuances of foreign policy and any detail — beyond renegotiating trade deals, cutting corporate taxes and reducing regulations — that would accomplish the enormous economic turnaround he says his policies would cause.
Wallace gave Trump a chance to correct a misstatement he had made at the last debate, when he said that Aleppo, Syria, had fallen. Trump could have gracefully acknowledged the point, but instead was combative.
"It's a catastrophe. I mean it's a mess," he said. When Wallace tried to interject, Trump added: "Have you seen it? Have you seen it? Have you seen what's happening to Aleppo?"
"Sir, if I may finish my question — " Wallace said.
"OK, so it hasn't fallen," Trump replied. "Take a look at it."
This has long been a campaign between two candidates with flaws that for many voters essentially canceled each other out. That has, until lately, kept the contest fairly competitive.
That Trump has gotten this far is a testament to his feel for the discontent in many pockets of America and the willingness of angry voters to stick with him through his many frailties.
He has been aided by Clinton's stumbles, whether in castigating some of his supporters as "deplorables" or giving in to the desire for privacy that led her to use a private email system and, more recently, to hide her diagnosis of pneumonia.
But the nearer election day looms, the more important it becomes for voters to be able to imagine the candidates presiding in the Oval Office. For Clinton, that closer look has coincided with one of the steadier patches of her candidacy. For Trump, it has coincided with a destructive period.
One of Trump's most important needs in this debate was to put to rest his vulgar remarks about women caught on tape by "Access Hollywood," and subsequent assault accusations by several.
Wallace posed a question many voters have asked: Why would so many women unknown to one another "make up all these stories?"
That was a line of questioning certain to surface. But Trump appeared unprepared to confront it.
First, he asserted that the stories had been "largely debunked," which they have not been. Polls show voters more likely to believe the women than Trump.
Then he blamed Clinton's campaign. And then he uttered a line that would be memorable to the suburban women he needs to win over.
"I didn't even apologize to my wife, who's sitting right here, because I didn't do anything," he said.
Clinton did not perform impeccably. She occasionally went so far out of her way to try to bait Trump that she took on his role of talking over the moderator and interrupting.
She faced repeated questions about her family's foundation from Wallace and from Trump, who called the charity a "criminal enterprise." But she was quick to remind viewers of Trump's own foundation, which has been embroiled in controversies over its spending.
"I'd be happy to compare what we do with the Trump Foundation, which took money from other people and bought a 6-foot portrait of Donald," she said. "I mean, who does that?"
In the last moments that the candidates had on stage together in this campaign, Wallace threw in a surprise, asking each to make a final pitch to Americans. It was that moment that illustrated a key difference between the two: Clinton, disciplined, went after the voters she needed, of all stripes, ending with an assertion of her strengths over her flaws.
"I'm reaching out to all Americans — Democrats, Republicans and independents — because we need everybody to help make our country what it should be, to grow the economy, to make it fairer, to make it work for everyone," she said, "We need your talents, your skills, your commitments, your energy, your ambition."
Trump, however, could not seem to get beyond his anger at Clinton and at his standing in the campaign.
He portrayed an America depleted and disgusted, and focused on Clinton: "All she's done is talk," he said of her appeals to African Americans and Latinos — among the groups he's angered.
He closed not with an assertion of the importance of electing him, but of his disdain for the woman across the stage and for the increasingly popular president she hopes to succeed.
"We cannot take four more years of Barack Obama," he said, "and that's what you get when you get her."