LAS VEGAS (AFP/REUTERS) - Billionaire Donald Trump refused to say on Wednesday (Oct 19) that he would accept the outcome of the Nov 8 United States presidential election, leaving open the possibility he would challenge the ultimate outcome.
Mr Trump said he would wait to decide whether the outcome was legitimate. "I will tell you at the time, I will keep you in suspense," he said. Rival Hillary Clinton responded: "Let's be clear about what he is saying and what that means: He is denigrating, he is talking down our democracy and I for one am appalled that someone who is the nominee for one of our two major parties would take that position."
She said Mr Trump, a former reality TV star, had in the past also complained that his show was unjustly denied a US television Emmy award. “I should have gotten it,” Mr Trump retorted.
The Democratic and Republican nominees took the stage in Las Vegas without shaking hands for a 90-minute televised clash before tens of millions of viewers, with just 20 days to go before Americans vote on Nov 8.
Both candidates were somber and unsmiling as they tackled the first question pitched at them by moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, about the US Supreme Court and how they would choose justices to serve on it.
In a fiery debate that centered more on policy than did earlier showdowns, Mr Trump accused Mrs Clinton's campaign of orchestrating a series of accusations by women who said the businessman made unwanted sexual advances against them.
Mr Trump said all of the stories were "totally false" and suggested Mrs Clinton was behind the charges. He called her campaign"sleazy" and said: “Nobody has more respect for women than I do, nobody.”
"I think they either want fame or her campaign did it, and I think it's her campaign," Mr Trump said. Mrs Clinton said the women came forward after Mr Trump said in the last debate he had never made unwanted advances on women.
In a 2005 video, Mr Trump was recorded bragging about groping women against their will.
"Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth and I don't think there is a woman anywhere who doesn't know what that feels like," Mrs Clinton said.
She cited other minorities she said Mr Trump had maligned. "This is a pattern. A pattern of divisiveness, of a very dark and in many ways dangerous vision of our country where he incites violence, where he applauds people who are pushing and pulling and punching at his rallies. That is not who America is," she said.
Mrs Clinton also accused Mr Trump of being the most dangerous White House candidate in modern history, ending a sharp debate exchange about their fitness to serve as president.
After Mr Trump used statements by Mrs Clinton’s primary rival Bernie Sanders and Mrs Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta against her, she retorted: “You should ask Bernie Sanders who he is supporting. He said you are the most dangerous person to run for president in the modern history of America. I think he’s right.”
Mrs Clinton said she would raise taxes on the wealthy to help fund the US government’s Social Security retirement programme, but suggested Trump might try to find a way out of paying the higher taxes. “Such a nasty woman,” Mr Trump said.
Mr Trump sought to reassure the Republican Party's conservative base, stressing he would appoint judges who are opposed to both abortion rights and imposing additional controls on gun ownership.
Mr Trump said he would appoint a Supreme Court justice who would protect American gun rights. He has said in the past that Mrs Clinton wants to “essentially abolish” the Second Amendment of the US Constitution guaranteeing a right to bear arms.
Mrs Clinton said she supports gun rights, but wants additional regulations on guns, citing examples of children being hurt or killed in gun accidents. “I see no conflict between saving people’s lives and defending the Second Amendment.”
They were asked about their vision for the Supreme Court, prompting Mrs Clinton to argue the election was about "what kind of country are we going to be".
She insisted gay rights and women's rights must not be rolled back. Mr Trump echoed conservatives who believe "the Supreme Court is what it's all about", vowing to appoint anti-abortion justices who would also protect gun rights.
"If you go with what Hillary is saying, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby," he said.
"Using that kind of scare rhetoric is just terribly unfortunate," Mrs Clinton responded. "You should meet with the women I've met with," she said. "This is one of the worst possible choices that any woman and her family has to make."
Mrs Clinton criticised the current Republican-controlled Congress for impeding President Barack Obama's attempts to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat, and said she supports abortion rights.
"I will defend women's rights to make their own health care decisions," she stressed. "We have come too far to have that turned back now."
Mrs Clinton said Donald Trump's plan for forcible deportations of millions of illegal migrants would rip families and the country apart. "I don't want to see the deportation force that Donald has talked about," she said. "I think it is an idea that would rip our country apart."
Mr Trump defended his plans, saying there are some "bad hombres" in the country who should be sent to their home countries.
In a ferocious debate exchange, Mrs Clinton cited reports from US intelligence agencies that Russian cyber attacks had targeted her party and campaign, and demanded that Mr Trump condemn it. The US intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security have said the Russian leadership was responsible for recent cyber attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the leaking of stolen e-mails.
"They have hacked American websites, American accounts of private people, of institutions," she declared. "Then they have given that information to WikiLeaks for the purpose of putting it on the Internet," she said.
Mr Trump dismissed the intelligence reports, declaring: "Our country has no idea."
Mrs Clinton said Mr Trump had refused to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin for recent cyber attacks. “He’d rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian intelligence officials that are sworn to protect us,” she said.
Mr Trump rejected the idea that he was close with Mr Putin, but suggested he would have a better relationship with Russia’s leader than Mrs Clinton. “He said nice things about me,” Mr Trump said. “He has no respect for her, he has no respect for our president and I’ll tell you what, we’re in very serious trouble.”
Mrs Clinton's response was sharp: "Well, that's because he would rather have a puppet as president of the United States."
Mr Trump blustered back: "No puppet. You're the puppet."
“Putin has outsmarted her and Obama every single step of the way,” he said in a reference to US President Barack Obama, a Democrat like Mrs Clinton.
But Mrs Clinton was on a roll: "It is pretty clear you won't admit the Russians have engaged in cyber attacks against the United States of America.
"That you encouraged espionage against our people. That you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up Nato, do whatever he wants to do."
Mrs Clinton also said Trump had been “cavalier” about nuclear weapons and should not be trusted with the nuclear codes.
The two candidates clashed over accusations that Mrs Clinton as US secretary of state from 2009 to 2013 did favours for high-dollar donors to her family’s Clinton Foundation.
Asked about a potential conflict of interest, she said she acted “in furtherance of our country’s values and interests”. She and Mr Trump talked over each other, Mrs Clinton defending her ties to the foundation, saying “there is no evidence” of a conflict, while Mr Trump said the foundation should return millions of dollars to countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar who treat gay people harshly.
“It’s a criminal enterprise,” Mr Trump said. Mrs Clinton said she would be happy to compare the Clinton Foundation to Mr Trump’s charitable Trump Foundation, which among its activities was to buy “a six-foot statue of Donald”.