Joe Henderson: Predicting Donald Trump in final debate is risky business

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Game-changer?

Or victory lap?

That’s two potential outcomes for tonight’s third and final presidential debate.

The first one applies to Donald Trump fails. If he fails to change the election narrative in his last head-to-head face off with Hillary Clinton, his White House aspirations likely are finished (if they aren’t already).

Clinton, ahead in the polls, likely just needs to avoid committing a major gaffe in the face of what is expected to be a flurry of attacks and allegations from an opponent with nothing to lose.

Trying to guess what Trump might do is risky business. In the first debate, he interrupted Clinton repeatedly and accused her, among other things, of “fighting ISIS your whole adult life.”

Fact-check alert: That terrorist organization didn’t exist until Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave it a name in 2013. If you want to stretch and say its brand of terrorism has been around since the 1990s, even that doesn’t fit Trump’s charge.

Trump did better in the second debate but a big story that emerged was that he essentially stalked Clinton around the stage while she was speaking. It may have been an attempt at intimidation. It didn’t work.

So what’s it going to be tonight?

Here are a few possibilities.

DRAIN THE SWAMP

Team Trump has been telegraphing this one. Trump could focus on his five-point proposal aimed at curbing lobbying by lawmakers and members of the executive branch after they leave government service. It’s a populist approach that Trump has called “Drain The Swamp” and it definitely has appeal.

It also helps focus attention on Clinton’s reputation as the ultimate Washington insider as well as the controversies surrounding the Clinton Foundation.

YOU MISOGYNIST PIG

Trump has tried to say the multiple women who accused him of unwanted sexual advances are lying.

His case is not helped by the now-infamous audio of him and former NBC host Billy Bush engaging in “locker room talk” (Trump’s words) about how big shots like The Donald can do anything they want with any woman they want.

Trump’s base has wholeheartedly bought his “they’re all liars” gambit. Tonight, we’ll see if the rest of America does.

PAGING OLIVER STONE, PLEASE REPORT TO TRUMP TOWER

Trump’s latest line of attack is that the “crooked media” has conspired with Clinton to rig the election in her favor. Well, the media certainly have been reporting the things Trump says and does, along with what people say about him.

But a conspiracy? You can bet he will advance that theory in the debate.

It could be a pre-emptive move by Trump to have a fallback if election night goes as many predict. He will just say he was robbed, and will set his followers’ hair on fire with allegations that precincts here or there had suspicious activity.

Arguing the election is “rigged” has been denounced by most high-level Republicans, including Mike Pence — Trump’s running mate. Clinton can make Trump look extra foolish on that point in front of millions of TV viewers.

STAY ABOVE IT

Clinton’s strategy likely will involve staying above the fray, refusing to engage on Trump’s expected batch of dark theories and oft-repeated accusations about her alleged misconduct. Her best gambit should be to show voters she isn’t the monster Trump is trying to depict.

Clinton can be a wooden campaigner. She doesn’t have her husband’s natural gift for connecting with an audience. She has further been battered by three decades of attacks by Republicans.

They have, at times, depicted her to be complicit in a murder (former aide Vince Foster’s suicide). The beneficiary of a shady land deal (Whitewater). A traitorous secretary of state (we didn’t forget Benghazi or her use of a private email server for sensitive government business).

Trump even suggested recently she wasn’t faithful to her husband.

Despite all that, she has a solid lead in the polls. Early voting is underway and CBS News reported that 94 percent of Clinton voters say they have made up their minds (compared to 93 percent for Trump).

If she can stay away from political quicksand tonight, she might be home free.

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Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

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