Republican nominee Donald Trump said during the early moments of the third presidential debate that he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

“That will happen automatically, in my opinion. Because I am putting pro-life justices on the court,” Trump said, in response to a question from moderator Chris Wallace. Trump said he wanted to leave the decision about whether to legalize abortions to individual states.

Democrat Hillary Clinton said she did not want to limit abortions further, saying she felt that the government should not be allowed to intrude in such decisions.

“You can regulate [abortion], if you are doing so with the life and the health of the mother taken into account,” Clinton said. She called abortion “one of the worst possible decisions that any woman or her family has to make.”

The first 20 minutes of the third debate featured little of the insults or accusations of the first two presidential debates. Instead, the two candidates discussed the Supreme Court and gun regulations in quiet – and often quite vague – terms. There were no mention of the sex scandals that have dominated headlines for days before the debate, focused on both Trump and on Bill Clinton, the Democratic nominee’s husband.

Trump – who has fallen dangerously behind in polls – came into Wednesday night facing a key choice: Will he use the third and final presidential debate to make a last-ditch lunge for the political center? Or will he use this moment to fulfill a long-held dream of the far right, and prosecute a litany of long-nurtured grievances against both Bill and Hillary Clinton before a national audience?

In the hours before the debate, the answer seemed to be the second. News reports indicated that Trump had invited a series of guests that seemed designed to play to his own political base.

He invited Malik Obama, the president’s half-brother and an avowed Trump supporter. He invited Pat Smith, the mother of an American killed in the 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic buildings in Benghazi, Libya – during Hillary Clinton’s term as secretary of state. Reports from Politico and NBC News indicated that he had also invited former Alaska governor and vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin (R).

The debate began at 9:03 p.m. Eastern time at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, with Wallace, of Fox News, moderating the 90-minute forum.

In theory – according to the Commission on Presidential Debates – the topics of the night would focus on pressing policy issues. Immigration. The Supreme Court. The economy. National debt and entitlements. Turmoil abroad. Each candidate’s fitness for the presidency.

But Trump’s invited guests – and his rhetoric in preceding days – seem to indicate that he will seek to focus the debate on questions about the moral character of Clinton, her husband, and her campaign.

Clinton will probably face questions – from Wallace, and from Trump – about a trove of hacked emails belonging to her campaign chairman, John Podesta, that were released by WikiLeaks. She will probably also face renewed questions about the FBI’s decision not to criminally charge her for using a private email server during her tenure at the State Department.

The election has taken a strikingly personal and troubling turn in recent weeks, as Trump has escalated his attacks on Clinton and her family while responding to scrutiny over his own treatment of women. Trump has assailed former president Bill Clinton’s past marital indiscretions and has accused him of sexually assaulting women.

Those efforts appear likely to spill over onto the debate stage: On Wednesday afternoon, the Trump campaign confirmed that Leslie Millwee, who recently accused Bill Clinton of sexually assaulting her in 1980, will be at the debate as a guest of the Republican nominee.

Millwee went public with her allegations earlier Wednesday via Breitbart, the conservative website that was run until recently by Trump campaign chief executive Stephen Bannon. Her accusations were widely circulated within the hard right’s online community.

Also in recent days, Trump has complained that the election is rigged in Clinton’s favor and has insisted that voter fraud is widespread, which is not supported by evidence. Republican and Democratic leaders alike have condemned such rhetoric.

Since the first debate, on Sept. 26, Trump’s chances have taken a remarkable nosedive. Clinton has taken leads in a variety of key battleground states, and Trump’s lead has eroded even in states that previously seemed safe. At least one recent poll has shown Trump behind in three states won by GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 – Georgia, Arizona and Utah.

Also, since the second presidential debate 10 days ago in St. Louis, a growing list of women have come forward to accuse Trump of sexual harassment and assault. Those revelations came after the release of a damaging 2005 “Access Hollywood” video in which Trump bragged about kissing and groping women against their will because of his celebrity status. Many of the women said that they were compelled to speak out after hearing Trump during the St. Louis debate deny that he had ever forced himself on women. He has denied the accusations.

The Trump campaign has been tight-lipped about how the real estate developer has been getting ready for the third debate. But he was notably resistant to mock debates while preparing for the first two debates, and Trump has regularly mocked Clinton for taking time off the campaign trail for debate prep.

Trump skipped his walk-through of the debate venue Wednesday morning, according to a campaign aide. When asked why he did so, and whether an aide acted as a stand-in, the aide responded that “his debate team is taking care of it.”

Clinton arrived at her hotel in Las Vegas around 3 p.m. Tuesday. Aides said they expected that she would stay out of public view until she appeared on stage Wednesday. Much of the intervening time would be spent in her hotel on debate preparations, they said. An entourage of aides and consultants made the flight with her Tuesday from an airport near her home in Westchester County, New York.

The former secretary of state has been deep in preparations since Saturday, huddling with her top aides at a hotel near her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., before flying to Las Vegas to continue studying. Although Clinton has emerged as the clear electoral college favorite in recent polls of battleground states, she remains tainted in the eyes of many voters by persistent questions about her trustworthiness.

Inside the Clinton campaign, aides say they believe that this debate is a critical opportunity for the former secretary of state to make a “closing argument” to voters about her vision for the country. Her objective Wednesday, they say, is less focused on baiting or driving down Trump’s standing with voters, which the campaign says it believes is near or at its basement levels.

Meanwhile, Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, campaigned in Colorado on Wednesday before heading to Las Vegas for the final debate.

“Hillary Clinton’s plan? More of the same. Not just the same; more of the same,” he said in Durango, Colorado.

Trump has been badly damaged by a string of controversies this month. The lewd remarks in the “Access Hollywood” video shook his support among Republican leadership, and the recent string of sexual assault allegations have intensified scrutiny of his character and temperament.

On Monday, Trump’s wife, Melania, defended him during several national television interviews. She played down his lewd comments as “boys’ talk” and made note of the timing of the assault allegations, suggesting that they are part of a coordinated effort to hurt her husband’s election chances.

The Clinton campaign has also forcefully condemned Trump’s rhetoric on the “rigged” election, and has accused Trump of trying to distract from the string of sexual assault allegations that have rocked his campaign.

“He’s trying to distract from the bad story line of his verbal and physical assaults on women,” campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters traveling on Clinton’s plane to Las Vegas on Tuesday. “Because he’s losing and he wants to blame somebody else,” Palmieri said, “and that’s what losers do.”

Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, broke with Trump on Wednesday and said she does not believe there is pervasive voter fraud.

“No, I do not believe that,” she said during an interview with MSNBC. “So, absent overwhelming evidence that there is, it would not be for me to say that there is.”

The Republican nominee’s campaign met with shock and outrage last week in St. Louis for inviting several women to the debate who had accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual improprieties. The campaign, which had organized a news conference with the women before the debate, had also sought to seat the women in the family box.

The Commission on Presidential Debates ultimately intervened and prevented the arrangement, which would have had the former president shaking hands with his accusers on national television. The Clintons have long denied the allegations.

The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, announced that Republican business executive Meg Whitman and billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban, a longtime Trump antagonist, would be seated in the debate audience as its guests. The decision signals that Clinton is likely to also make the economy and Trump’s stewardship of his own businesses a factor in tonight’s debate.

 


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