Watch the second presidential debate tonight at 9 p.m. ET on CNN and CNN.com.
Donald Trump will live to fight another day – but it took the nastiest, most bitterly personal presidential debate in recent memory for the Republican nominee to stanch the downward plunge.
Trump’s campaign was in free fall when he entered the debate hall Sunday night, reeling from the revelation of a 2005 video in which he spoke of women in lewd and sexually aggressive terms. The video sparked a dramatic rebuke of Trump, with dozens of Republicans in Washington and around the country saying the billionaire should step aside and let his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, lead the GOP ticket.
The icy tone was set early when decades of tradition eroded as Trump and Clinton declined to shake each other’s hand.
Trump fought back in the only way he knew how – throwing out a battery of vicious counter punches. He vowed to prosecute Clinton if he is elected, and then throw her in jail. With her husband and daughter in the audience, Trump branded Bill Clinton a serial abuser of women hours after appearing alongside several women who allege the former president assaulted them.
Trump seemingly dismissed the significance of the vulgar language he was caught on tape using toward women a decade ago, apologizing for his conduct but repeatedly saying his remarks were just “locker room talk” that did not reflect his real character.
Clinton, however, said that incident did provide a true picture of Trump’s character. She spoke of her years fighting Republicans on policy but said she never questioned their fitness to serve as president until now.
“Donald Trump is different,” Clinton warned.
In the process, it seemed as if American politics changed in the course of one nasty night. The once sacred tradition of a presidential debate – where candidates typically trade barbs over their vision of the country’s future instead of personal humiliations – exploded into something quite chilling.
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Trump glowered, interrupted, and prowled the stage at Washington University in St. Louis, calling Clinton a “devil” and “liar” with “hate in her heart.” The performance likely electrified his fiercely loyal supporters but may have done little to widen his appeal among more moderate swing state voters.
A CNN/ORC poll found 57% of debate watchers thought Clinton won compared to 34% who thought Trump came out on top. The poll only represents the views of people who watched the debate and has a slight Democratic advantage compared to CNN polls of all Americans.
Clinton didn’t take Trump’s bait, staying calm when he declared “Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacks those same women.” She didn’t take the bait, repeating first lady Michelle Obama’s philosophy articulated at the Democratic convention: “When they go low, we go high.”
Pacing the stage
Trump paced the stage for much of the debate, which was moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz. He frequently interrupted Clinton and had trouble standing still while she spoke, sometimes appearing in her camera shot. He lost his composure at one point after a fierce exchange with Clinton about her emails, accusing the moderators of not addressing the issue even though Raddatz had asked a question about it.
“Nice, one on three” Trump said, claiming that the moderators were biased against him.
Hours earlier, Trump made a surprise appearance with women who have in the past accused Bill Clinton of inappropriate sexual advances. The women later attended the debate as members of the audience.
During the debate, Trump came across as more serious, prepared and less prone to losing his cool than in the first presidential debate two weeks ago when he was seen as the clear loser.
Clinton was less dominant than in the first debate and sometimes less effective in parrying Trump’s attacks in an encounter far more frosty and bitter than in their first clash. But no other presidential candidate in history has faced the personal buzzsaw that Trump represented on Sunday night.
And Trump did not just aim his fire at the Clintons.
He took a swipe at Pence, who declined to go out in public and defend his running mate after the emergence of the video on Friday.
Trump slapped down Pence’s statement during last week’s vice presidential debate, when the Indiana gove