LAS VEGAS — Hillary Clinton entered the final presidential debate in the catbird's seat, with a decisive if not insurmountable lead in national and swing state polls. But she nevertheless came equipped with a lethal weapon to finish off Donald Trump's improbable candidacy: Trump himself.
Clinton unleashed a fusillade of attacks on Trump Wednesday night, rattling the Republican nominee with caustic jabs at his praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, his often-volatile temperament and his reality TV past.
As Trump refused to say he'd accept the voters' verdict in less than three weeks, nursed grievances that his NBC series The Apprentice never won an Emmy and reiterated hard-line stances against abortion rights and immigration, Trump seemed at times determined to do Clinton's work for her, setting the stage for a potentially humiliating rout on Nov. 8.
Democrats could hardly contain their glee.
"Trump didn't do what he needed to make up ground in the polls with voters, and especially women," Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh said. She added that the real estate magnate would be haunted by his vow to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade and his tarring of Clinton as a "nasty woman."
Those comments — and Trump's unsparing attacks on the women who have accused him of sexual assault as fame-seekers or Democratic operatives — are likely to simply reinforce the current dynamic of the race, in which Clinton is beating Trump by 20 percentage points among women voters, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
But the debate's most significant moment came when Trump held out the possibility of refusing to concede the election to a victorious Clinton, saying he'd keep the country "in suspense" until election night.
"That's horrifying," Clinton responded, saying that "every time Donald thinks things are not going in his direction, he claims whatever it is rigged against him," be it the Iowa caucuses or the Emmy Awards.
"That is not the way our democracy works," she later added. "We've been around for 240 years. We've had free and fair election. We've accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them."
In the post-debate spin room, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook predicted exchanges like that one — and Trump's alleged servility to Putin — would further alienate the skeptical Republicans Trump has thus far struggled to win over.
"What's happening is you have Republican voters who can't bring themselves to vote for Trump, and so they're pulled between their partisan alliance and their realization that Trump would be a disaster for this country," Mook said. "Certainly that's what we're seeing in our data about who's still undecided."
"Secretary Clinton's job was to tell the American people why she would best be suited to be commander in chief of this country," Democratic National Committee interim chairwoman Donna Brazile said, pronouncing Clinton's performance "terrific" and saying that the race would move further out of Trump's reach in the final stretch.
Entering the debate, Trump's campaign had hoped to sway voters its way with a forceful case for wholesale change in Washington, with the anti-establishment billionaire casting himself as a president who would "drain the swamp" of Beltway corruption.
"What you're seeing is record low approval ratings of Congress. We're draining the swamp with the ethics reform to make sure there's not a revolving door for lobbyists and the government," Trump senior adviser Boris Epshteyn said in a pre-debate interview, adding that Trump would also make the case for "positive change" on the economy.
But even one of Trump's better moments — when he conceded that Clinton had the upper hand on government experience, but said that it was only "bad experience" of failing to usher in meaningful policy achievements — gave way to a crisp Clinton rejoinder.
"You know, back in the 1970s, I worked for Children's Defense Fund, and I was taking on discrimination against African-American kids in schools," Clinton said. "[Trump] was getting sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination in his apartment buildings."
She also slammed Trump for borrowing money from his father while she advocated education reform in Arkansas and calling former Miss Universe Alicia Machado an "eating machine" around the same time Clinton, then the first lady, forcefully advocated for women's rights in a landmark Beijing speech.
"And on the day when I was in the situation room, monitoring the raid that brought Osama Bin Laden to justice, he was host of the Celebrity Apprentice," Clinton snarked.
"I wonder which one of her advisers wrote that line," Omarosa Manigault, once an Apprentice contestant and now a fervent Trump backer, riposted in the spin room. "There were so many well-written, well-scripted lines."
Scripted or not, there were indeed many memorable Clinton lines. Among them: After Trump asserted that Putin had no respect for Clinton, she fired back, "Well, that's because he'd rather have a puppet as president."
Clearly perturbed, a flailing Trump charged that Clinton was the real puppet.
When she didn't find herself embroiled in rounds of taunts and counter-taunts with her voluble opponent, Clinton pitched herself to voters as a consensus-driven, pragmatic progressive who would pursue gun safety reforms while also recognizing the right of Americans to own guns; simultaneously expand the social safety net and make sure to pay for it; and strive to "bring our country together" after the most acrimonious presidential campaign in modern history.
Meanwhile, though Trump said at various points that he wished the debate provided him more opportunities to elaborate on his policy vision for the country, he seemed more interested in settling political scores and touting his own brand — accusing Clinton of orchestrating violence at his rallies (never mind his explicit incitement to physical force), boasting that Putin "said nice things" about him and extolling his "massive," "great" and "phenomenal" company.
Come Nov. 9, he'll likely have ample opportunity to revel in its greatness.