It started the minute they walked on stage and skipped the pretense of a cordial handshake.
Given the perfect opening when moderator Anderson Cooper bored in on recent revelations about Trump’s predatory comments about women, Clinton struck first, and it was clear she was ready.
“Like everyone else,” Clinton said, “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking over the last 48 hours about what we heard and saw.”
She would have none of Trump’s claims that his comments about women were nothing more than locker room banter.
“This is who Donald Trump is,” she declared.
She added that it was not just women that Trump had disparaged, but also immigrants, blacks, Latinos, the disabled, POWs, Muslims “and so many others.”
Then she said it again with rock-hard resolve: “This is who Donald Trump is.”
Trump was ready to pounce with an ugly counteroffensive.
He went THERE, digging into the very subject he had congratulated himself for avoiding in the first debate.
“If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse,” Trump said.
Yes, Trump allowed, he was sorry for what he had said about women.
But his own mistakes, Trump said, were mere “words”; Bill Clinton’s mistakes, he said, were “action.”
Trump gave a shout-out to the women he had strategically placed in the front row of the audience, including three who had accused Bill Clinton of rape or sexual impropriety.
“You can say any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women,” he said.
Trump didn’t stop there.
“Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously,” he added.
A fourth woman in the audience, Trump said, had been a 12-year-old rape victim whose alleged attacker Clinton had represented, successfully, as a defense lawyer.
Not only that, Trump said, Clinton had laughed at the girl.
“Don’t tell me about words,” Trump said.
The facts: Bill Clinton never faced any criminal charges in relation to the alleged sexual improprieties, and a lawsuit over an alleged rape was dismissed. He did settle a lawsuit with one of the women who claimed harassment.
Hillary Clinton, for her part, played a key role in defending her husband against allegations of sexual improprieties, but there is no clear or independent evidence that she either enabled his activities or bullied his accusers. She did reluctantly represent the defendant in the rape case. She did laugh in discussing procedural details of the case, but there’s no evidence she laughed at the victim.
This was a fight to the death over character.
The exchange captured all of the vitriol and disdain that these two candidates have harbored against one another from Day One of the campaign.
They’ve contained it at times, let some of it loose on others.
Now, before tens of millions of Americans, both Trump and Clinton let their dislike, anger and bitterness toward one another spew out.
“He owes our country an apology,” Clinton said, citing Trump’s long campaign to question whether President Barack Obama was born in the U.S.
Trump countered, “You owe the president an apology,” suggesting Clinton’s own campaign had been the one to raise the issue during the 2008 primary.
And then he added that she owed people an apology for deleting tens of thousands of emails that flowed through her personal email system when she was secretary of state.
From there, the two candidates moved on to talk about policy, differences over taxes, email and more.
They even grudgingly managed to come up with something nice to say about each other at the end, but only when prompted by a questioner. Then, each feeling their mission accomplished, they shook hands.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.