In the closing minutes of their final debate Wednesday night, Donald Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway sent out a desperately plaintive tweet like a message in a bottle from a sinking ship:

"Hearing privately from many reporters Hillary had a 'terrible night' & Trump had best debate. Hope this will make it into print, on air."

Her very hopefulness betrayed that Conway knew only too well things wouldn't be heading her way. 

The best bits and bites of Trump's debate performance, plus any evidence of Hillary Clinton's allegedly "terrible night" were about to be lost in the shadow of what her candidate had said in a single colossally foolish exchange. 

It was all anyone would remember.

Pressed about accepting election results

Asked by the moderator, Chris Wallace, whether he would accept the results of the election on Nov. 8 Trump said he'd "look at it at the time."

Pressed again, he went further.

"What I am saying is that I will tell you at the time. I will keep you in suspense."

Trump and Clinton debate 3

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, right, debates with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during a third presidential debate Wednesday night in Las Vegas. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Trump has been ginning up suspicions about the electoral system for weeks. That's what prompted the question in the first place.

His claims that the vote will be rigged against him have riled his base while unsettling the very core of his campaign team.

Both his daughter Ivanka and his running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence have tried to wind down his vote rigging alarms with public assurances that Trump will accept the result in November, win or lose.

But obviously that hasn't worked.

Holding out for possible fight after Nov. 8

Now Trump is winding it up again as though "I will keep you in suspense" isn't just standard reality TV plot development; it's a legitimate attitude toward the transfer of power in a democracy.

'I'll keep you in suspense,' Trump says0:42

Clinton, who'd been having some rough innings on foreign policy and her email scandal in last night's debate, saw the opening Trump gave her and went for it.

"That's horrifying," she said. "Every time Donald thinks things are not going in his direction he claims whatever it is is rigged against him."

Trump complained the Iowa caucus and Wisconsin primary were rigged against him, she said, and he accused the judge in the Trump University fraud case of bias against him, too.

Clinton blasts Trump on accepting results1:17

Her final flourish was to recall that Trump had tweeted that the Emmy Awards were rigged when, for three years in a row, his show The Apprentice didn't win.

"Shoulda' gotten it," Trump interjected, making her point.

Rigged vote talk sign that loss is expected

Conway's frustration is that Trump's useless talk of vote rigging isn't helping the campaign. It's not only a distraction from what he should be talking about — trade, immigration, Clinton, Clinton, Clinton — but also tends to confirm that Trump knows he's losing.

In fact, the unspoken assumption in the question at the debate was that Trump is going to lose on Nov. 8. The debate might have been his last chance to change that, but instead, he wandered into the weeds with "I'll keep you in suspense."

Closing statements2:13

But what's more important to many is how incredible and frightening it is that a question about whether he'll accept the result even needs to be asked. 

Here's why.

Anyone who has been to a Trump rally knows how he can stir the enormous crowds he draws. In the beginning, he would fire them up by mentioning "the wall" — the one he promised to build on the border with Mexico.

Then, during the primaries, he started his attacks on "Crooked Hillary," and that led to the now routine chants of "Lock her up! Lock her up!"

He has said she's guilty of crimes and shouldn't be allowed to run for president.

Now he is telling his people that the polls are rigged against him, the media are rigged against him and the vote on election day will be rigged against him.

Trump supporter 'ready for a revolution'

At a rally for Pence attended by a few hundred people in Salem, Va. last week, I met a man who told me to remember that everyone in the audience was a gun owner and that if Clinton won the election there would be a civil war.

Campaign 2016 Trump

An unidentified man, left, confronts a demonstrator during remarks by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a rally in Asheville, N.C., on Sept. 12, 2016. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

At an Iowa rally the week before a woman in the audience told Trump's choice for vice president she feared the election might be stolen and that "If Hillary gets in, I myself I'm ready for a revolution because we can't have her in."

So that is what people are talking about.

While some Republicans may find what he said last night a reason to get off the Trump train, his surrogates are making excuses for him. They claim that Trump is only saying what Al Gore said in the contested election of 2000. That is nonsense because Gore was dealing with facts on election night not speculations three weeks ahead of it.

Florida recount after close results

On election night in 2000, the vote in Florida was so close that the result of the election couldn't be clear without a recount. Gore, naturally, rescinded the concession he had made.

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Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton smiles at a member of the audience as she walks off the debate stage as Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump gathers notes at his podium. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

There was a protracted dispute about how far the recount should go and that was finally settled at the Supreme Court more than a month later.

The court gave the election to George W. Bush. Gore, who actually won a half a million more votes than Bush, nevertheless accepted the court's decision.

Trump is not behaving like that kind of man. He is egging on his supporters, priming them for outrage if he loses.

He may think he knows what he is dealing with, but I was reminded by a colleague recently of John F. Kennedy's warning in his 1961 inaugural that "those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside."