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US Elections 2016: Final countdown: News analysis

Trump's chances barely alive despite a strong showing

It was an ugly, ill-tempered debate in which Democrat Hillary Clinton played it safe

After one of the most disastrous fortnights any American presidential campaign has ever faced, embattled Republican nominee Donald Trump took to the debate stage on Sunday night in St Louis on a mission to show that his campaign is not finished yet.

And to that extent, he succeeded, putting in a much improved performance over his erratic first debate on Sept 26. Indeed, his running mate Mike Pence gave his performance a passing grade.

But while the tycoon may have stopped some of the rot, he did little to alter the trajectory of the race. So while he managed to live to fight another day, his campaign remains on the ropes.

His supporters will have some moments to cheer about now, but undecided voters would have walked away with little to dispel doubts about his temperament and attitude towards women and minorities.

In a way, the vastly differing prospects facing the two candidates as they took to the stage were reflected in their respective strategies.

With a significant lead in the polls and her opponent in trouble, Democrat Hillary Clinton played it safe and was far more passive than in the first debate. She came across as trying to protect a lead rather than to increase the score. She did not land any big blows but nor did she commit any major gaffes.

In contrast, Mr Trump appeared to be the wounded fighter desperate to land a knockout blow. Though his first 30 minutes involved an erratic, scattergun approach in trying to attack Mrs Clinton, he steadied himself as the night went on and improved.

He largely steered clear of taking the bait on attacks from his opponent, constantly pivoted away from his weak points to take shots at his opponent and stayed more consistently on his message about the former secretary of state being an ineffectual political insider.

He hammered her hard on her e-mail scandal - even if his decision to threaten to jail her if he wins was a questionable strategy at best.

The result was an ugly, ill-tempered debate that many pundits called either a draw or a narrow Trump victory.

Said University of Michigan director of debate Aaron Kall: "Trump had the better debate overall, but did little to alter the tenor of the race because he failed to successfully reach out and connect with moderate and independent voters. The bar was tremendously low for him heading into the debate and he delivered."

Dr Christopher Devine, assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said Mrs Clinton seemed "off balance" in trying to respond to some of Mr Trump's attacks.

"Trump was much more substantive and disciplined in discussing policy issues... in comparison to the first debate. I think this may prove encouraging to wavering Republicans who had given up on his campaign," he said.

What will continue to concern Republicans, though, is the fact that Mr Trump failed to solve his biggest problems. Many had hoped that he would issue a full-throated apology for the vulgar remarks caught on tape in 2005. Dozens of Republicans have since come out to say they cannot support him. And yesterday, House Speaker Paul Ryan told lawmakers that he will no longer "defend" Mr Trump nor campaign with him, focusing instead on maintaining his party's majority in Congress.

During the debate, Mr Trump gave a short apology, insisting it was just "locker room talk", and launched a personal attack against former president Bill Clinton. He even held a press conference earlier with women who have accused the former president of sexual assault.

Similarly, instead of any attempt to quell questions about his taxes, he appeared to confirm suspicions that he had avoided paying personal income tax at some point.

In the end, it was a debate that kept Mr Trump's chances alive, but only just. And that is good news for Mrs Clinton.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2016, with the headline 'Trump's chances barely alive despite a strong showing'. Print Edition | Subscribe