LAS VEGAS — Trailing in polls and abandoned by many in his party, Donald Trump launched into Wednesday’s debate by accusing Hillary Clinton’s campaign of orchestrating the charges of groping and other unwanted sexual advances against him and saying that he may not accept the election results if he loses.
The debate’s designated topics were conventional enough; they included immigration, foreign policy and the economy. And for much of the evening, Trump, in his last, best chance to stop his slide in the presidential race, showed discipline in sticking to them.
But he also lobbed many of his signature personal attacks.
“Those stories have been largely debunked,” Trump said of the women who have stepped forward since the last debate to accuse him of sexual assault. “I believe it was her campaign that did it,” he added, accusing Clinton of orchestrating the raft of allegations that have emerged.
Clinton pounced, citing Trump’s own reaction to the allegations. He has said of one accuser that he would not have assaulted her because she wasn’t attractive enough.
“He goes after their dignity, their self-worth,” Clinton said. “I don’t think there’s a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like.
“I think it’s really up to all of us to demonstrate who we are, and who our country is, and to stand up and be very clear about what we expect from our next president.”
Trump simply repeated his contention that the various accounts were false, though his campaign has not offered evidence that refuted the charges.
“Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” he insisted.
The heated back-and-forth followed a week in which Trump, who is sinking in the polls, accused Clinton of being on drugs during their last debate and suggested fellow Republicans are rigging the election against him.
In a striking moment, Trump twice declined when pressed to say whether he would accept the outcome of the election — a shift from how he responded to a similar question at the first debate.
“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said first. Later: “I’ll keep you in suspense.”
Clinton called Trump’s response “horrifying,” and cited President Barack Obama’s own put-down from a day earlier about Trump’s “whining” proving he did not have the temperament to serve as president.
“That is not the way our democracy works,” Clinton said. “He is denigrating, he is talking down our democracy. And I for one am appalled that somebody who is the nominee of one of our two major parties would take that kind of a position.”
When Clinton later quoted some of Trump’s comments about nuclear weapons, warning they are dangerously cavalier, Trump called her a liar.
“She’s been proven to be a liar in so many different ways,” he said. “This is just another lie.”
The charge stemmed from a discussion that began when the debate turned to the recent disclosures by WikiLeaks of the private emails of Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. Clinton accused Trump of accepting the help of Russian operatives believed to have hacked the documents and given them to WikiLeaks to try to influence the American election. Clinton demanded Trump “make it clear he will not have the help of Putin in this election, that he rejects Russians espionage against Americans.”
Trump accused Clinton of trying to deflect the discussion away from a tough question about the WikiLeaks disclosures. She had been asked about a document that showed her telling a group of bankers during a paid speech that she supported a “hemispheric common market with open trade and open borders.”
“That was a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders,” Trump said. “I don’t know Putin. He said nice things about me. If we got along well that would be good. He has no respect for her, he has no respect for our president and I’ll tell you what, we are in very serious trouble.”
Clinton shot back: “That’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States,” referring to Putin’s praise of Trump.
“You’re the puppet,” Trump responded.
Trump also brought a group of guests to the debate designed to provoke. They included Obama’s estranged half-brother and a woman who blames the death of her son during the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, on Clinton.
With an expected audience in the tens of millions, the 90-minute session at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas afforded Trump the opportunity to amplify his attacks — or show a more disciplined side aimed at reassuring the large number of voters concerned about his steadiness and temperament.
Trump did both. For much of the beginning of the debate, he calmly presented his case that Clinton would nominate liberal justices to an evenly divided Supreme Court, endangering Second Amendment rights and expanding access to abortion.
Trump said he was proud of the strong endorsement of the National Rifle Association and vowed to appoint justices who would “feel very strongly about the Second Amendment.”
Clinton explained her opposition to a key 2008 Supreme Court decision, written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, striking down the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns. In doing so, she appeared to take a more nuanced position on gun ownership than she had throughout the campaign, offering her 18 years living in Arkansas as evidence of her support for an individual’s Second Amendment right to bear arms.