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The campaign heads to a crucial showdown

(LAT)

As both candidates prepare for Monday night’s televised debate, here’s where the race for president stands:

Donald Trump still has a possible path to victory, but Hillary Clinton has survived one of her worst stretches in the campaign with her lead in key states narrowed, but still intact.

That sets up the central fact for Monday night — Trump needs to find a way to change the course of the race, and the debate remains his best, maybe last, chance to do so.

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.

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WHY THIS DEBATE COULD MATTER

Legend has it that Ronald Reagan entered his only debate with President Jimmy Carter — on Oct. 28,1980 — behind in the race, asked Americans, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” and triumphed.

Not quite. Reagan was already ahead of Carter by the time the debate took place. He gained more ground in the days afterward and turned what might have been a narrow victory into something closer to a rout, but the debate didn’t turn the outcome.

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They seldom do.

Typically, most people watch debates to cheer on their preferred candidate. The perceived winner often gets a small, short-term boost in polls, but that fades fast. Part of what helped Reagan was that the 1980 debate took place just a week before the election, before his surge could ebb.

There are exceptions. In 1960, the first televised debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, might have been decisive — in one of the closest elections in history, almost anything could stake that claim. The same goes for the debates in the modern era’s other closest race, the 2000 campaign between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

This debate might join that short list. Polls show lots more voters than usual — about one in five — remain undecided between Trump and Clinton. Many, especially those younger than 30, have flirted with third party candidates or thought about staying home. An even larger share of voters has a chosen candidate but remains unsure.

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Voter frustration with and anger about the campaign has grown, new data showed this week.

Trump faces huge doubts about his suitability for office: In the latest Associated Press/GfK survey, for example, only about one-third of voters said the word “qualified” applied to him. (Half said the word “racist” applied).

If he can convince a significant share of those uncertain voters that he’s not what they fear, the race could get a lot tighter.

Clinton continues to leave many of her supporters cold. Her problem isn’t so much the large share of voters who view her unfavorably — most of those are Republicans whose dislike is deeply partisan. What worries Democratic strategists remains the lack of enthusiasm among supporters. That endangers the turnout Clinton and other Democratic candidates need in order to win.

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If Clinton can give the fence sitters a reason to vote for her, her lead could grow. As Mike Memoli reported, Clinton has seemed to recognize in recent speeches that she won’t inspire young voters simply by reminding them of their reasons for disliking Trump.

But the reality that the race has tightened could, by itself, boost turnout. Overall, that’s more likely to help Clinton.

Meantime, as Evan Halper and Noah Bierman reported, both candidates are deep into preparations — Trump at his country club in New Jersey and his office in New York, Clinton at her home in Chappaqua, N.Y.

WATCH WITH US MONDAY NIGHT

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Here’s a summary of the two candidates’ debate strategies, strengths and weaknesses. We’ll be assessing each round as the debate proceeds. For video of key moments, assessments of the candidates, fact checks and more, stay with Trail Guide on Monday night.

And The Los Angeles Times is hosting another debate watch party, and this one will be our biggest yet. Join us for the Debate Watch Spectacular on Sept. 26 at The Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Tickets are $13. RSVP here.

WHERE THE RACE STANDS

Trump got a boost in polls last week while news coverage focused on video clips of Clinton stumbling into a van as she labored with pneumonia.

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But as our USC Dornsife/L.A. Times tracking poll shows, the Republican surge faded as Clinton, looking healthy, rejoined the campaign trail and Trump fumbled around with his history of “birther” conspiracy theories regarding President Obama.

The tracking poll, which consistently has shown more favorable results for Trump than most other surveys, continues to give him a small, but diminishing, edge. But other national surveys released this week show Clinton holding a lead averaging around 5 points.

As important, polls of battleground states show Clinton holding onto her lead where she needs it: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Virginia, Colorado. Those are Clinton’s firewalls.

Even if Trump can sweep Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Iowa and Nevada, all of which current polls show as tossups, he’d still need to break through that wall somewhere to get a majority of the Electoral College.

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Trump also still has problems in some red states, including Arizona, where Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson has attracted considerable support, Melanie Mason reported.

The Clinton campaign continues to raise and spend record amounts. Where’s it all going? Building a huge operation to get out the vote is a big part of the answer, Halper reported.

Also, I explained Wednesday how Trump’s jump in support among black voters provides an object lesson in how not to read polls, particularly a daily tracking poll such as the USC/LAT Daybreak survey.

PLAY STRATEGIST ON OUR ELECTORAL COLLEGE MAP

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As our interactive electoral map shows, Clinton currently leads in more than enough states to secure the White House.

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.

THE POLICY AND GENDER GAPS

The two candidates have vast differences on policy, not just in what they advocate, but in how they go about refining their ideas, Noam Levey and Memoli reported.

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Few areas show that gap more fully or with greater consequence than climate change, Michael Finnegan reported from Florida, where local governments are spending billions to cope with rising sea levels.

Trump has pledged to reverse almost all the Obama administration’s policies on global warming, most of which were put in place by presidential authority and could be overturned the same way.

But campaigns also try to sway voters by touching emotions that run deeper than policy preferences. Cathy Decker took a sharp look at how the Trump campaign has used language about gender to shape the way voters see Clinton. Many female voters resent those remarks, but not all do, she found.

FOLLOW OUR TRACKING POLL

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The USC Dornsife/L.A. Times tracking poll has been tracing Trump’s and Clinton’s trajectories since early summer. The poll shows a tighter race than many other surveys. Why is it different? Here are several of the reasons. and here’s what the poll tells us about Trump’s potential path forward.

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

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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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