Hillary Clinton's campaign is making an urgent effort during the U.S. election's final days to remind voters of what horrifies them about Donald Trump, as the Republican nominee himself serves as less of a reminder of that than usual.
As polls have tightened since last Friday's bombshell news that the FBI might reopen its investigation into Ms. Clinton's e-mail practices while Secretary of State, the Democratic nominee has eschewed the optimistic messaging usually adopted as a closing argument by a candidate in the lead.
Instead, her campaign has unleashed a torrent of brutal TV advertisements – three of which aired during Tuesday night's deciding game of the World Series, the campaign's best remaining chance to reach tens of millions of voters at once – highlighting Mr. Trump's past behaviour. In one, the entire 60-second running time is devoted to clips of Mr. Trump's derogatory and predatory comments about women, including his apparent boast about sexual assault.
Meanwhile, Ms. Clinton and her most high-profile supporters continued on Thursday to devote their public speeches largely to attacking Mr. Trump as unfit to be commander-in-chief, with President Barack Obama mocking Mr. Trump's recent complaint that Saturday Night Live was too mean to him.
Mr. Trump has hardly been a ray of sunshine this week, using and exaggerating the news out of the FBI to bolster his claim Ms. Clinton is "crooked." While at least one of the ads he aired during the World Series game included making a positive case for him as an agent of change, another released Thursday cites Ms. Clinton's connection to "pervert" Anthony Weiner. (It was a separate investigation into the former congressman that led to the discovery of e-mails potentially relevant to the investigation into Ms. Clinton's use of private e-mail servers while secretary of state.)
But on the stump, and on social media, Mr. Trump is displaying uncharacteristic discipline. After spending most of the campaign veering wildly off-script, he is dutifully reading most of his speeches off teleprompters. And despite usually being unable to resist responding with vitriolic tantrums to his opponents' attacks, he is currently refusing to take the Democrats' bait. He even managed not to return fire when Alicia Machado introduced Ms. Clinton and criticized him at one of this week's events – a sharp contrast to the downward spiral he entered when Ms. Clinton invoked his past insults of the former Miss Universe during a presidential debate.
"Stay on point, Donald, stay on point," Mr. Trump publicly reminded himself during a speech on Wednesday. "No side tracks, Donald. Nice and easy."
As surprising as it may be for Mr. Trump to be acting like something approaching a traditional candidate (albeit one who offers glimpses into his inner monologue) as Election Day approaches, it reflects two phenomena seen through the campaign – both of which have resurfaced at a particularly unhelpful time for the Democrats.
One of those is that, at moments when Mr. Trump faces new opportunity or needs to save his campaign from complete collapse, his advisers are occasionally able to convince him to briefly stick to script. In this case, both of those circumstances apply, with the FBI's intervention having handed him a lifeline just as even he seemed to recognize he was headed for a massive defeat.
Typically, it requires only a few days for Mr. Trump to lose focus and return to self-sabotage. But this latest spell of discipline has occurred with so little time remaining in the campaign that he may be able to keep it up until the end – allowing Republican-leaning voters who are put off by his offensiveness to keep it out of their heads on Election Day.
The second, related phenomenon is that in a campaign with two historically unpopular candidates, whichever one is getting more attention tends to suffer in the polls. For most of the campaign that has been Mr. Trump, which has allowed Ms. Clinton to essentially stay out of the way. Now, because of the FBI story, it's Ms. Clinton and her ethical issues that are front and centre.
Ms. Clinton's campaign can very reasonably point out that Mr. Trump's liabilities – from overt sexism and demonization of minorities, to alleged sexual assaults along the lines of what he boasted about on leaked tape, to shady business ties and behaviour – dwarf concerns about her ethics or perceived opportunism. And polls that show her clinging to small but significant leads in key battleground states suggest enough voters have still kept that perspective to send her to the White House.
But to be completely confident, the Democrats need the spotlight back on Mr. Trump. If he won't put himself there, they'll keep trying to do it for him.