Presidential debate: Five things to watch in the final joust

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LAS VEGAS — The final presidential debate may be Donald Trump's last best chance to turn around an election in which Hillary Clinton appears to be decisively pulling away.

But after scattershot performances in the two previous debates for Trump, time is running out. The GOP nominee's campaign has been sinking deeper into dark conspiracy theories, while Clinton has been trying to close her campaign on high note.

After slogging through what is widely seen as the ugliest presidential campaign in recent memory, it will be the last time Clinton and Trump meet on the same stage together — they didn't even shake each others' hands at the last debate — with just three weeks to go before Election Day.

Here are five things to watch:

1. First debate Clinton or second debate Clinton?

Clinton pummeled Donald Trump in the kickoff debate at Hofstra University, while at the second, at Washington University in St. Louis, she stepped back to engender sympathy while Trump pummeled her. Both approaches worked, with Clinton seen as the clear winner in post-debate surveys.

Clinton has eased up lately after months of attacking Trump, with aides suggesting his negative ratings are as low as they can go. She's switched gears and is trying now to channel the disgust so many Americans are feeling about an election that "makes you want to unplug the internet or just look at cat GIFs," as she said last week.

Clinton is well positioned to give Trump a finishing move. But she may opt to deflect his attacks and attempt a discussion of policy to let the contrast in their approaches speak for itself.

RELATED: Trump and Clinton take the stage for the second presidential debate

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Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton take the stage for the second presidential debate
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Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton take the stage for the second presidential debate
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton acknowledge each other at the start of their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton stand together at the start of their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton appear together during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump listens as Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during their presidential town hall debate with at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Saul Loeb/Pool
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during their presidential town hall debate with Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Saul Loeb/Pool
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at the start of the second U.S. presidential town hall debate between Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens and takes notes during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump turns his back as Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton talks about his comments about women during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz speak before the start of the second U.S. presidential debate between Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. stand before the presidential town hall debate between Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016.
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton acknowledge each other at the start of their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Saul Loeb/Pool
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during the second U.S. presidential town hall debate between Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during the second U.S. presidential town hall debate between Clinton and Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens during their presidential town hall debate with Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
The family of U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, (L-R) Melania, Ivanka, Eric and Donald Jr. wait for the presidential town hall debate with U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Marc Mezvinsky, Chelsea Clinton and Former U.S. President Bill Clinton sit at the presidential town hall debate between Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump listens as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton answers a question from the audience during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during her debate against Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump (L) at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during his presidential town hall debate against Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (not shown) at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Anderson Cooper, of CNN, and Martha Raddatz, of ABC News, moderate the second presidential debate between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (Jim Bourg/Pool via AP)
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during the presidential town hall debate with Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, board her campaign plane after the presidential town hall debate against U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton watches as Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump (L) and his wife, Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, participate in their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during their presidential town hall debate with Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during the presidential town hall debate with Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton pause at the conclusion of their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Saul Loeb/Pool
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Saul Loeb/Pool
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during the presidential town hall debate with Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump listens as Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during their presidential town hall debate with at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
(L-R) Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathy Shelton sit together in the audience before Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton begin their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump's daughters-in-laws Lara Trump, Vanessa Trump and daughter Tiffany Trump (L-R) are seated at the start of the second U.S. presidential town hall debate between Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Chelsea Clinton and Former U.S. President Bill Clinton arrive at the presidential town hall debate between Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton face the audience during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump looks at Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump is seen during his presidential town hall debate against Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (not shown) at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Journalists Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz prepare to moderate the presidential town hall debate between U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton makes her opening remarks at the start of the second U.S. presidential town hall debate between Clinton and Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton take the stage at the start of their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton shake hands at the end of their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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2. What stunt will Trump pull?

Trump's decision in the second debate to bring women who'd accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault stunned observers and, Trump allies believe, rattled Clinton. And that came before Trump declared he had removed the "shackles" of traditional political behavior he claimed had restrained him.

Now, Trump plans to bring the relative of an American killed in the Benghazi attack and, most surprisingly, Barack Obama's Kenyan half-brother, Malik, who is supporting Trump. Pundits are baffled as to why, but Trump is nothing if not surprising.

Invoking the Benghazi attack could backfire on Trump, however, as Clinton has typically responded with the compassion and restraint Trump seemed unable to give to critics like the Gold Star Khan family.

Trump may have more tricks up his sleeve — he could trot out a new Clinton accusation, dredged from the fever swamps of Internet, like his recent claim that Clinton may be on drugs.

RELATED: Will you be watching the final presidential debate?

3. Trump v. Clinton v. Wallace

Trump has directed the full power of his presidential campaign in recent days to basically yelling at the television. The candidate and his surrogates have been spending as much time complaining about media coverage as almost anything else, accusing journalists of being part of a vast global conspiracy to defame him.

The final debate's moderator, Chris Wallace, is an anchor on Republican-friendly Fox News, but that may do little to stop Trump from turning the debate into an airing of grievances.

"I mean honestly, a global conspiracy?" Fox News' Carl Cameron pressed Trump Monday. "Fox hasn't been great," Trump replied, "But you have been better than some of the others."

It's worth remembering that some of Trump's most contentious primary moments came at Fox News debates, including the dramatic first GOP debate in which Megyn Kelly pressed him right from the start on his long history of demeaning remarks towards women. That episode set the stage for Trump's angry response that Kelly had "blood coming out of her — wherever," which foreshadowed many of the gender issues that have dominated the campaign in its final weeks.

4. Game change or go home

Trump doesn't just need to win the debate, and he doesn't just need to win it big. He needs to win it in a historic rout to begin closing the gap with Clinton in the final days of the campaign (polls out Tuesday showed Clinton competitive even in deep red Texas.)

The bar for Clinton is astronomically lower. She doesn't have to do much of anything. If the debate ends as it began, she will have cleared the final major hurdle before Election Day. After Wednesday, it will take an unforeseeable disruption to change the race.

Trump will come armed with fresh ammunition. There's the alleged "quid pro quo" between the FBI and the State Department over declassifying one of Clinton's emails, and there's new revelations from the Wikileaks dump of emails stolen from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.

RELATED: What to watch out for during the candidates' last closing arguments:

5. How deep does the conspiracy go?

Trump's speeches since the last debate have fixated on the vast conspiracy, which also includes everyone from international finance to pollsters to Republican critics including House Speaker Paul Ryan.

The component that's gotten the most attention is his repeated and unsubstantiated claim that there is a wide scale plot to rig the polls and steal the election. He's suggested Ryan is part of a "sinister deal" and may be sabotaging Trump's campaign in order to run for president in 2020.

These angles unnerve Republicans. The GOP controls the governorships in most of the major swing states and officials from both parties have criticized Trump for sowing doubts about the legitimacy of an election that polls show him losing by a decisive margin. The attacks on Ryan, meanwhile, raise fears of a rift between Trump voters and Republicans opposed to his candidacy that could depress turnout or lead GOP voters to split their ticket in either direction.

The "grand conspiracy" angle is catnip for Trump's diehard supporters, but it's been difficult to sell outside of that committed group. And Trump in particular has struggled to explain its baroque patchwork of obscure players like Sidney Blumenthal and their connections to Clinton.

On the other hand, it's not clear Trump's strategy runs beyond firing up his base. Will he dig deeper into the conspiracy weeds or adjust for a different audience?

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