In a shining white pantsuit, Hillary Clinton deployed the same tactics as in the previous two presidential debates – a combination of a "grandmother smile" of bemusement for her opponent's boyish and often incomprehensible rants and a look of barely concealed disdain – but added a more aggressive attack of Donald Trump and impassioned defence of issues such as women's right to make their own health decisions and the democratic election process.
Mr. Trump had his good moments but the most memorable were his inflammatory rhetoric about "ripping the baby out of the womb" only days before birth during a discussion about appointing pro-life justices on the Supreme Court, and his breathtaking declaration that "I will keep you in suspense" when asked about whether he would accept the outcome of the presidential election, now less than three weeks away.
From the outset, it seemed like a vast conspiracy of irony that the third and final debate of the U.S. 2016 presidential race, which has come to resemble a sensational, cringe-worthy reality show between two deeply flawed contestants, should be in a city that many consider a distasteful reflection of American culture. The debate was at the University of Nevada Las Vegas – a sober enough setting for a serious matter – but this is a city of gaudy entertainers, determined gamblers, ruthless casino kings and witless schmucks who don't know they're being fleeced. So sad, so sad – because it's perfect for this presidential season and especially this final debate.
During the day on Wednesday, the scene behind the massive pop-up CNN broadcast stage – Hello, my name is Sarah, and I am a CNN addict – felt like something out of a Hollywood dystopian blockbuster as cameras swept over a frenzied, jeering crowd amid gigantic placards, some proclaiming the need for Jesus to save us. Someone in the crowd kept moving into the camera's view to bash a huge Donald Trump head with cantilevered blond hair with a hammer. I half-expected to see half-naked showgirls parading through the scene with signs denouncing oglers and gropers. Instead, there were smiling cheerleaders and a marching band to add some good ol' American cheesiness as if the whole spectacle were as heartwarming as apple pie at Thanksgiving.
Riding an October bump in the polls, Ms. Clinton had less to lose than Mr. Trump, who had to "bend steel," as one CNN commentator put it, to turnaround his downward trajectory in the last few weeks since the release on Oct. 7 of the 2005 Access Hollywood tape in which Mr. Trump bragged about his freedom to grope and kiss women without consent because he was famous.
The strain could be seen in Mr. Trump's demeanour. He had the pallor of a cadaver, all pasty faced with stiff, sprayed hair. Often, he pointed his finger at Ms. Clinton in an accusatory fashion and near the end, called her "such a nasty woman." He made some good points, calling her out on her obvious pivot from discussing open borders in a leaked Wall Street speech to accusing him of encouraging espionage to alter the course of the American election.
But Ms. Clinton had the best passages. Jumping off a discussion about her 30 years in government, which Mr. Trump used to suggest she was ineffectual, she carefully laid out a comparison about what each were doing at certain points in the past. The best was that when she was in the White House situation room watching the takedown of Osama bin Laden, he was running a Celebrity Apprentice episode.
This debate was Mr. Trump's chance to sidestep the sexual-assault scandal, appear presidential, avoid traps and attack Ms. Clinton in front of tens of millions of voters. He was better at taking aim at her than he was in the previous debates. He mentioned the private e-mail server controversy, the WikiLeaks release of embarrassing e-mails from senior Clinton aides and the recent release of apparent hidden footage of a Clinton consultant talking about how to provoke violence at Trump rallies.
But he couldn't control the sniffles – nor could he resist saying "wrong" several times into his microphone as if playing a segment out of the Saturday Night Live skit starring Alec Baldwin as the GOP nominee.
It was not the kind of performance that will change the narrative or the election.