LAS VEGAS – In the middle of the Strip, a few blocks from the hulking Trump International Hotel, the famous Mirage Volcano has been delighting tourists for 27 years with its faux eruptions, spewing fire, smoke and water 100 feet into the air.
A small sign at the volcano’s base announces, “Volcano show eruptions Sunday through Thursday, 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.”
But there were a series of additional eruptions in Las Vegas on Wednesday night at the third and final presidential debate here. Donald Trump erupted at 6:30 p.m. local time. And 6:34. And 6:48. And 6:52. And 6:54. And then, at 7:06, the crater blew off, leaving a gaping caldera where Trump’s presidential campaign once stood.
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Fox News’s Chris Wallace, the moderator, asked Trump whether he would “absolutely accept the result of this election.”
“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said, suggesting that “what I’ve seen is so bad” in terms of corruption.
“But sir,” Wallace persisted, admirably reminding Trump that “one of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner.” Wallace asked again: “Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?”
“I will tell you at the time,” Trump replied. “I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?”
Suspense? The refusal to accept this bedrock principle of democracy was shocking, even for a candidate who had told audiences about a “rigged” and “stolen” election. And it should pour hot lava on any notion that Trump is going to revive his candidacy in the final 20 days.
Ironically, Trump had tried to keep his magma cool – and he succeeded for the first half-hour of the debate. Wallace kept the focus firmly on policy, and Trump and Hillary Clinton gave the voters a lot of what they’ve asked for during the campaign: talk about the Second Amendment, abortion policy, immigration, nuclear weapons.
But gradually, with Clinton’s baiting, Trump began to rumble.
On Clinton’s accusation that he’s Vladimir Putin’s puppet: “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet!”
On Clinton generally: “She’s been proven to be a liar in so many different ways, this is just another lie.”
Gradually, the interruptions increased. “Wrong!” he said when Clinton justifiably said he had been cavalier about nuclear weapons. “Wrong!” he said when Clinton correctly noted that he mocked a disabled reporter. When Clinton tried to “translate” something Trump had said, he blurted out: “You can’t!” When Wallace asked a tough question, Trump interrupted to pronounce the moderator “correct.”
But it was when the topic turned to his treatment of women that Trump truly began to spew molten rock.
“Give me a break!” Trump interjected when Clinton mentioned, correctly, that he had called former Miss Universe Alicia Machado “an eating machine.”
He said the nine women who accused him of sexual misconduct were spouting “lies” and “fiction” and trying to get “their 10 minutes of fame.”
He said, without evidence, that the accusers were probably brought out by Clinton “and her sleazy campaign.” Declared Trump, “I didn’t even apologize to my wife, who’s sitting right here, because I didn’t do anything.”
Trump needed to change the race in a big way Wednesday night. Clinton leads Trump nationally by an average of seven points in polls, and The Washington Post’s surveys of 15 battleground states show Clinton with a significant lead in states that together add up to 304 electoral votes, to Trump’s 138. Ed Rollins, the head of the pro-Trump Great America super PAC, told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham that it “would take a miracle at this point” for Trump to win the election.
If he is to have any hope of winning, Trump needs to expand his appeal to a broader swath of the electorate. But Trump, rather than taking the race in a new direction, decided to do what he’s done before when his back is to the wall: lash out with fury.
He set the tone for the last debate by inviting President Obama’s half brother, a Trump backer, to the debate, along with the mother who accuses Clinton of murdering her son in Benghazi and a woman who just accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault.
At first – and probably because Wallace chose to begin the debate with substantive issues of policy – Trump was uncharacteristically mild, even as Hillary Clinton tried to needle him. Clinton noted that “when I was in the Situation Room, monitoring the raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice, he was hosting the ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’” When Trump mentioned that he was staying at his “beautiful hotel” in Las Vegas, the Trump International, Clinton shot back: “Made with Chinese steel.”
Clinton mocked Trump’s charitable foundation for buying a “six-foot portrait of Donald. I mean, who does that?”
Clinton gradually got under Trump’s skin, and he returned to his bombastic form: “She’s lied hundreds of times. … Her crooked campaign. … She caused the violence.”
“Such a nasty woman!” Trump blurted out in the waning moments of the debate.
But Trump did nothing to reduce the likelihood that this “nasty woman” will beat him on Nov. 8 – whether or not he accepts the results.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.