A worker cleans a sign for the Commission on Presidential...

A worker cleans a sign for the Commission on Presidential Debates prior to the second presidential debate to be held at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012. Credit: AFP/Getty Images / SAUL LOEB

This presidential race is beginning to feel like an NBA playoff game: We could have spared ourselves 43 minutes of anxiety by just tuning in to the last five.

The race is now virtually tied after looking all but wrapped up a few weeks ago. Donald Trump’s sudden discovery of verbal discipline after a disastrous early August, coupled with Hillary Clinton’s calamitous past three weeks, replete with stumbles both verbal and physical, have made this excrescence of a presidential contest a bona fide race after all.

Go figure.

Next Monday’s debate at Hofstra University should be quite a show, though of what variety no one can predict. It could be reasonably dignified (please note modifier) or it could turn into an all-out food fight and an utter national disgrace.

Needless to say, ratings should be high.

A week ago, it looked like Clinton had more to lose at Hofstra. But with the tightening polls and clear momentum shift toward Trump, there’s a good argument to be made that it’s the other way around now. Trump’s campaign has done yeoman’s work in getting and keeping The Donald somewhat on message — on teleprompter that is — just as Clinton’s considerable fault lines were on full national display in another batch of her old emails. But one really bad performance could undo all of Trump’s gains.

The question is, can Trump keep it together for 90 minutes while speaking extemporaneously and in a debate format, or will he revert to the ugliness that got him to the dance, but would likely leave him short in general election votes?

That said, Trump and his handlers know he can’t go toe to toe with Clinton in a pure policy debate, so they’ll need to let the monster out of the cage, but only for a cameo. Trump must do his thing — create chaos and then capitalize on it — but in a way that keeps the larger audience on his side. That’s a tough balancing act.

The question for Clinton is whether she can remain cool under fire should Trump really try to rattle her. If Trump, for example, decides to go full-bore on former President Bill Clinton’s alleged and admitted sexual transgressions, can Clinton deflect stinging charges that she played a role in defaming his victims without suffering real damage?

Dollars to doughnuts she’s preparing for that exchange.

Clinton has a second thing to watch out for: Al Gore syndrome. Gore, like Clinton, was a polished policy wonk going into the final 2000 presidential debate with George W. Bush. He slaughtered Bush on points, but lost the debate by appearing like an arrogant know-it-all. These aren’t Oxford Union debates. It’s all about the TV audience; you’ve got to connect with it.

Trump has one major advantage going into Hofstra: Clinton has an extraordinarily high unfavorability rating. It gives Trump license to press her harder than he could a more popular female candidate without looking like a bully. A lot of Americans think the Clintons have gotten a pass in the American media for far too long, and they will cheer Trump on in his attacks. They will find that cathartic.

Trump is just as disliked. But he revels in it. That’s part of his shtick. He cleverly manipulates people’s attacks on him to capture news cycles. Watch for that especially in post-debate spin.

Both of these candidates would be losing by wide margins in any other presidential year, but Clinton and Trump have the extraordinary good fortune of facing off against each other. Their mano-a-mano exchange — Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein did not reach the 15 percent polling threshold to qualify for the debate — promises to be almost as entertaining as it will be dispiriting. Almost.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.


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