In final presidential debate, voters got a surprise: a clear contrast of ideas in a (relatively) tame affair
In a more orderly contest than the previous debate, candidates laid out their values
The final debate of this year's U.S. presidential election on Thursday night will rank as a relatively conventional one for Donald Trump, a man who in past debates has bragged about his anatomy, threatened to arrest his opponent and sowed doubt about American democracy.
What Americans got Thursday evening was a clear contrast of ideas and personalities.
It was so comparably tame that the moderator of the recent, cacophonous debate involving Trump and his Democratic rival saluted Thursday's moderator, Kristen Welker, for maintaining basic decorum.
"I'm jealous," said Fox News' Chris Wallace, who presided last month over an affair so chaotic the debate commission created new rules for Thursday allowing candidates' microphones to be muted.
If you believe the polls, roughly four or five per cent of Americans are still unsure how they will vote, even as tens of millions have already cast early ballots for the Nov. 3 election between Trump and his challenger, Joe Biden.
On Thursday, Americans saw a president who celebrated oil drilling, denounced public health care and defended separating migrant children from their parents.
They heard a challenger favour a transition from oil, promise expanded public health coverage and fume about current border policy as a moral stain upon the country.
The clock favours Biden
How will it affect the race?
That would hardly help the candidate trailing this late in a race: More than four-dozen consecutive national polls show Trump behind, though he's more competitive in some swing-state polls.
Yet, late in Thursday's contest, Trump smelled an opening.
Biden expressed his desire to leave the oil era behind. Biden said he would stop offering federal subsidies to fossil-fuel companies: "I would transition from the oil industry," he said.
He later clarified that he favoured a gradual transition, and nothing so abrupt as a ban on fracking: "It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time. Over time."
That gave Trump just enough material to craft an on-the-spot message to the swing voters of energy-producing states.
"[Biden] is going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania? Oklahoma?" Trump said.
WATCH | Biden pledges to transition from oil industry 'over time':
It's unclear whether that exchange might hurt some Democratic congressional candidates in areas of Pennsylvania and Texas.
But there's limited evidence Biden's stance is politically fatal in the presidential election, in the most critical energy-producing state.
Key issues: energy, immigration, foreign policy
Biden's angriest moment came in an exchange about migration — and the more than 500 children detained at the border whose parents can't be found.
"It makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation," he said.
On foreign policy, he accused Trump of having a soft spot for dictators and "thugs" — like North Korea's Kim Jong Un, and Russia's Vladimir Putin — while poking his finger in the eye of all of America's traditional friends and allies.
Of any hostile nation meddling in the U.S. election, Biden said: "They will pay a price if I am elected."
WATCH | Biden calls separation of children at border 'criminal':
But Trump said his foreign policy has paid off. Those American allies he's pressured are now contributing more into their own defence, he said.
There was also an unusual, only-in-America exchange about health care.
Trump accused his opponent of plotting to expand socialized medicine, which he said would destroy the cherished U.S. Medicare program.
Medicare is, in fact, a public program for seniors. And it's popular. Biden's platform calls for letting more Americans opt into a similar plan.
But Biden didn't mention that. Instead, Biden defended himself as a non-socialist.
"[Trump] thinks he's running against somebody else," Biden said, alluding to the more left-leaning primary opponents he defeated, like Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"He's running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people because I disagreed with them."
WATCH | Trump paints grim picture of a Biden presidency:
In an exchange on race, Biden mocked Trump. This was after the president compared his achievements to Abraham Lincoln's.
"Abraham Lincoln here," Biden said, motioning to Trump, "is one of the most racist presidents we've had in modern history. He pours fuel on every single racist fire. … This guy [has] a dog whistle about as big as a foghorn."
Hunter Biden affair makes a cameo
There was strikingly little debate about personal ethics.
Trump's campaign had signalled for days that it would press Biden on his family's dealings in Ukraine and China, and even invited a former business partner of his son Hunter Biden to address the media before the debate.
The partner alleged that, in 2017, a lucrative piece of a contract with a Chinese entity was reserved for the former vice-president. The arrangement is alleged to have occurred when Biden was out of public office.
But Biden denied ever taking a penny from a foreign source in his life.
He also noted that he's released 22 years of tax returns, unlike Trump, whose own family has numerous operations that generate revenue from foreign sources, and has a 2017 inauguration committee under criminal investigation.
The pre-debate stunt brought to mind some of the tactics used in 2016 — specifically, the emails allegedly obtained from rival Hillary Clinton's campaign and the pre-debate event with a woman who accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct.
One of the women who participated in that 2016 pre-debate press conference, Juanita Broaddrick, celebrated the return to that old playbook.
Trump often mentions his victorious first presidential run, even these days, with the clock ticking on this second campaign.
He frequently raises Hillary Clinton's name at campaign rallies.
He raised it again on Thursday's debate stage. And that exchange offered a glimpse of the candidate who obliterated norms of presidential debating, campaigning and governing.
When Biden mentioned Wall Street in passing, Trump replied that Biden is, really, the candidate of Wall Street, given how much more money Democrats have raised this year.
The president went on.
"I could blow away your [fundraising] records like you wouldn't believe. We don't need money. We have plenty of money," Trump said.
"We beat Hillary Clinton with a tiny fraction of [her] money."
And that was likely it for Trump's career in presidential election debating. Unless, of course, he loses, and runs again in 2024.
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