Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump needed less than half an hour Wednesday night to transition from a quiet and composed discussion of important issues to chaotic bickering, interruptions and non sequiturs. The worse the bickering got, the more it worked in Clinton's favor.
The turning point came an hour into the debate, when moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump directly whether he would accept the results of the Nov. 8 election, and Trump repeatedly refused to commit.
"I will tell you at the time. I will keep you in suspense," Trump responded. Asserting that the election is "rigged," he alleged without any substantiation that "millions of people are registered to vote" who shouldn't be.
"That's horrifying," Clinton responded. And she was correct. The notion that any major party candidate would refuse to accept the will of the American people on Nov. 8 is appalling. That exchange underscored, as Clinton said, agreeing with her primary opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, that Trump is "the most dangerous person to run for president in the modern history of America."
Issues of nuclear proliferation, immigration, gun control and abortion got lost in a barrage of accusations and assertions that ultimately prompted Trump to fall into his own worst rhetorical trap — the one where he begins uttering half-sentences and spluttering disconnected thoughts that simply make no sense.
For example, a question about allegations that he groped women prompted Trump to jump to Clinton aides' deletion of 30,000 email messages. Then he jumped to the Islamic State — all within a 30-second interlude.
Trump repeatedly lost but regained his composure, demonstrating exactly the kind of mercurial behavior that accentuates why he's unfit to be president.
Clinton entered Wednesday's debate with an eight-point average lead in national polls, an unprecedented advantage in a modern presidential race. This late in the campaign, it would have required an epic stumble on her part to put Trump back in contention.
Clinton had a straightforward mission: Avoid responding to Trump's taunts, maintain composure, and just allow Trump to be Trump. He gladly obliged.
Trump tried as best he could to rattle her with references to recent email exchanges among senior staffers in the Clinton campaign, published by WikiLeaks. U.S. officials say the emails appear to have been obtained via hacking by Russian intelligence operatives.
A tepid Trump supporter, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, warned Wednesday that the campaign needed to back away from exploiting these hacked emails, saying, "Tomorrow, it could be us."
Rubio also joined Trump's running mate, Mike Pence, and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway in rejecting the presidential candidate's unfounded assertions that the vote was "rigged" against Trump. It's exactly these kinds of outlandish statements that are giving millions of voters good reason to reject him as a serious presidential candidate.
At this stage, the only thing rigging the vote against Trump is Trump himself.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST LOUIS POST DISPATCH