High drama on debate night

(CNN)First came the Montagues and the Capulets, then the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Now there are the Clintons and the Trumps.
Two clans whose triumphs and disasters have flared bright across the national stage for a quarter century are now engulfed in a family feud for the modern era.
    Bill and Hillary Clinton are the most enduring political figures bridging the turn of the 20th Century into the 21st, perpetually locked in a cycle of self-imposed failure and redemption -- and are on the verge of recapturing ultimate power.
    Donald Trump and his colorful, brash kin are the nouveau riche embodiment of a new political age when 12 million Twitter followers and outrageous fame are as important as the traditional political network that the Clintons have built for a generation.
    On Sunday night, the two compelling, potential first families faced off in the round in a gladiatorial contest with the fate of the White House on the line.
    The episode that unfolded in St Louis at the second presidential debate reached almost operatic levels of melodrama and antipathy, registering a new emotional peak in a campaign that will echo throughout the ages.
    The showdown, dubbed by CNN's Brian Stelter "The fury in Missouri," began with the families arriving separately in Secret Service SUVs. Trump strolled to his holding room as his wife and children swept in behind him.
    Chelsea Clinton put an arm around her mother's shoulders as they scaled a short flight of stairs, once again at her side during a moment of personal testing.

    Trump's sparring

    But Trump started the sparring well before he took the debate stage Sunday night.
    Just beforehand, he engineered a staggering stunt with three women who have spent decades accusing Bill Clinton of sexual assault. By staging an event with them, the billionaire signaled he was ready to do whatever it takes to get into Hillary Clinton's head.
    With his campaign in free fall after the release of video showing him boasting about how he can grope women with impunity because he is a "star," Trump seems determined to introduce the seediest, most sordid details of a flurry of half-forgotten Clinton scandals to a new millennial audience.
    Trump appears with Bill Clinton accusers before debate
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      Trump appears with Bill Clinton accusers before debate


    Trump appears with Bill Clinton accusers before debate 02:10
    The reality star's move in meeting the Clinton accusers was pure Trump -- lassoing the media into covering a spectacle -- and placing himself at dead center of the chaos, ready to make the most of the confusion of his disoriented foes.
    It was also a sign that his days of listening to GOP leaders who fear the blowback of such inflammatory tactics are done. If Trump is going down, he now appears determined to take the Republican Party and any future Hillary Clinton presidency down with him.
    The Trump campaign then attempted to have the three women -- Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey -- allowed in the VIP box in the hall, where they would dramatically have been in close quarters with Bill Clinton himself.
    Trump in 1999: Hillary is a wonderful woman
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      Trump in 1999: Hillary is a wonderful woman


    Trump in 1999: Hillary is a wonderful woman 00:51
    But the Commission on Presidential Debates nixed the plan, saying that area was for family only, so the women had to be content with a prominent seat in the audience.
    Bill Clinton had been briefed about Trump's media coup before arriving at the debate hall, sources said.
    The former president still waited to greet the Trumps as they walked in to take their seats, shaking the billionaire's wife Melania by the hand, then moving on to grim-faced handshakes to each of Trump's kids -- perhaps in a steely bid to show he was not fazed.
    Among them was Donald Trump Jr., who had said he was proud of his dad for not bringing up Clinton sex scandals in the first debate.
    But Chelsea Clinton -- apparently to avoid an awkward moment with her friend Ivanka Trump, the Republican nominee's daughter -- joined her father a little later.

    Spiking awkwardness

    The awkwardness only spiked when the candidates themselves appeared.
    Clinton and Trump walked on stage and stopped a few feet one another. Trump nodded. Clinton said, "Hello, hello," in a strained voice, the tension and simmering dislike each candidate bears for the other palpable.
    There was no traditional pre-debate handshake and each candidate seemed loath to stand in the same photo frame, in the end standing sideways without looking the other in the eye.
    With the debate underway, Trump adopted a glowering, somber persona. As Clinton spoke, he paced the stage. As he prepared to unleash zingers, he often lifted his microphone to his lips and paused for a few seconds to build anticipation.
    At times, he seemed to loom large right behind his foe as she addressed members of the town hall audience. Though camera angles likely contributed to the unflattering look, it may not have played well with crucial women voters watching at home.
    He introduced language never seen in such a rarified setting before -- calling Bill Clinton "abusive" and Hilary Clinton a "liar," a "devil" with "tremendous hate in her heart." He brushed off his offensive banter on the "Access Hollywood" tape as mere "locker room talk."
    Clinton never flinched. She fought back by going after Trump's personality, and refused to be intimidated by a rival used to dominating a room.
    Fact Check: Trump insulted women, Muslims and others
    Fact Check: Trump insulted women, Muslims and others


      Fact Check: Trump insulted women, Muslims and others


    Fact Check: Trump insulted women, Muslims and others 00:48
    "My argument is not with his supporters. It's with him and with the hateful and divisive campaign that he has run, and the inciting of violence at his rallies, and the very brutal kinds of comments about not just women, but all Americans, all kinds of Americans," she said.
    Trump also rarely lost his cool and refused Clinton's bait, frustrating her efforts to provoke him into the kind of overreactions that cost him in the first debate.

    Public humiliation

    Clinton has endured all kinds of public humiliation during her long tenure on the national stage -- especially during the impeachment saga set off by her husband's Oval Office dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. So she was well-prepared for the daggers that Trump threw her way, a sustained, personal, bitter attack unprecedented at a televised presidential debate.
    Throughout it all, she remained calm, returning to lean on her stool and sometimes shaking her head or even smiling.
    At times, the drama became surreal.
    When Trump threatened to appoint a special prosecutor if he becomes president to probe her "situation" -- referring to her handling of classified information while using a personal email server for official business as secretary of state -- it seemed American politics resembled a classic banana Republic more than the most enduring and powerful democracy the world has ever seen.
    Several times, moderators Anderson Cooper from CNN and Martha Raddatz from ABC had to step in to cool boos and cheers from the audience.
    As he has throughout the campaign, Trump again busted convention Sunday night -- dismissing the pundits' assessment that flagrant personal attacks don't work in a town hall event, a more intimate affair than other debate formats.
    The final person to ask a question might have helped cool the atmosphere and get everyone out in one piece when he asked each candidate to mention something about the other that they admire.
    Clinton discussed Trump's family. And in an almost touching moment, Trump praised his opponent's resilience and determination to never give up.
    With temperatures cooled a notch after the ugliest presidential debate in memory, the two feuding rivals did meet at center stage for a brief handshake.
    Trump left the stage and was greeted by his son Donald Trump Jr., who shared a glance and shook hands.
    The Clintons were focused on the family business. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton huddled with the undecided voters brought into the debate to ask questions. Fighting for every vote, just as they have done for years.