Watch the final presidential debate Wednesday on CNN at 9pm ET
For Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it’s time to begin the closing arguments.
Both nominees enter Wednesday’s presidential debate – the final showdown of the election season – with historically high unfavorability ratings, and need to convince undecided voters why the country would be worse off with their opponent in the White House.
Trump enters the match-up in his weakest position yet in national polls and is losing ground in key battleground states. And he is making perhaps his most outlandish argument yet – that the 2016 election is rigged to help Clinton win. Clinton, meanwhile, will have a fresh set of questions to answer around newly released hacked emails and fresh revelations about her use of a private email server at the State Department.
If the last two debates are any indication, Wednesday night promises to be contentious, theatrical, and unpredictable. Here’s what to watch:
Will Trump insist the election is ‘rigged?”
With his national poll numbers sliding and Democrats making a strong play for Republicans strongholds like Arizona, Trump is issuing a fresh warning to supporters: If I lose, don’t believe the results.
His message that the election is “rigged” and that the political system is skewed to guarantee a Clinton victory, shows Trump taking his distrust of the media and propensity to fuel conspiracy theories beyond what even he has exhibited previously.
It’s a scorched-earth strategy that the Republican nominee appears likely to stick to before millions of viewers on Wednesday night, even though many of Trump’s fellow Republicans have repudiated talk of a rigged vote.
Trump’s critics argue that his insistence that the election is rigged simply underscores the nominee’s growing pessimism about his Election Day prospects.
At a news conference in the White House Rose Garden on Tuesday, President Barack Obama mocked Trump for “whining before the game’s even over.”
There is “no serious person out there who would suggest somehow that you could even rig America’s elections,” Obama said.
Trump’s theatrics – and can Clinton “go high?”
Trump managed to catch almost everyone by surprise at the second debate in St. Louis last weekend.
Less than two hours before the event, Trump convened a media availability featuring women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct in the past. Trump then invited that group to sit inside the debate hall – no doubt a move aimed at throwing Hillary Clinton off of her game.
The entire spectacle was a reminder that there is nothing predictable about the nominee, and there’s no telling what theatrics the GOP nominee might resort to in Las Vegas. His campaign has already announced they will bring Obama’s Kenyan-born half-brother, Malik, and Patricia Smith, mother of Benghazi victim Sean Smith, to the debate.
Trump could be in an especially volatile mood as he tries to beat back a flood of new allegations that he had inappropriately kissed or groped women and is on the defensive about his flailing poll numbers.
Clinton has so far responded to Trump’s bombast with a strategy most famously articulated by Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.” The Democratic nominee appears likely to stick to that theme Wednesday.
At the very least, Trump’s top advisers say that they would prefer a final debate focused on substance and policy, rather than the troubling accusations that have recently overwhelmed their candidate.
“If it were up to me this entire conversation would be about what I know the people would want it to be about, which is the issues,” Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Monday. “They want this debate to be about health care and terrorism and the economy and taxes and corruption and government.”
Despite these comments from his own campaign manager, Trump has repeatedly struggled to stay focused on policy, choosing instead to unleash attacks on various foes like House Speaker Paul Ryan or former Miss Universe winner Alicia Machado.
Steady and practiced: Will it work for Clinton again?
If Trump’s debate performances have been unpredictable and his debate preparations unconventional, Clinton has stuck to the most traditional playbook – practice, practice, practice.
The Democratic nominee has kept a grueling debate prep schedule ahead of each of the three debates, even clearing her calendar of campaign events for days at a time. (Sunday, she held a six-hour prep session at a hotel near her home in New York.)
All of the time spent hunkered down with advisers appeared to pay off in the first two debates – Clinton has avoided major gaffes; consistently fact-checked her op