NEW YORK • Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are spoiling for an extraordinary clash over race and gender that could come as early as their first televised debate (9am Singapore time today), with the two increasingly staking their fortunes on the cultural issues convulsing the United States.
Virtually tied in recent national polls, both Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump enter the debate as the two most deeply unpopular presidential candidates in modern history.
Each hope to discredit the other, and both hope to emerge from the debate having burnished the view that they are better qualified to be commander in chief amid heightened fears of terrorism, unrest over police shootings of African-American men and a slew of longstanding issues, including immigration, trade, tax policy and foreign affairs.
Adding to the potential for fireworks is the fact that the candidates are more sharply opposed over racial and gender issues than any two presidential opponents in decades.
Democratic nominee Mrs Clinton wants to increase turnout among African Americans and women by tackling issues of bias and respect. Mr Trump, a billionaire real estate tycoon representing the Republican Party, is positioning himself at the vanguard of white men.
"The extremity of the divergence is unlike anything I have confronted in my adult life," said Professor Randall L. Kennedy, a professor of law at Harvard.
What to watch for during the face-off
Many analysts say debates usually don't win a candidate the election but can well lose it for them. A single sentence, or the slightest slip, can do serious damage.
Here is what to look for as Mrs Hillary Clinton and Mr Donald Trump try to motivate - or reassure - supporters and win over the 8 per cent of registered voters who remain undecided:
CAN MR TRUMP DEMONSTRATE HE'S FIT FOR OVAL OFFICE?
Surveys show that a majority of Americans still believe Mr Trump, who has never run for office and has no foreign policy experience, is unqualified to be president. If the firebrand, brash property tycoon is to convince those voters who have doubts about his fitness for high office, but are uneasy with Mrs Clinton, the three debates represent his best opportunity to prove he can be trusted to serve as a head of state.
He has to show discipline in engaging Mrs Clinton, challenging her without belittling her, and at least show he is conversant on foreign and domestic policy issues.
He must summon the stamina to engage fully for 90 minutes and the knowledge to answer a battery of policy questions from both the moderator and Mrs Clinton. A long silence, a mistaken guess or an angry dismissal all would serve to reinforce one of his biggest vulnerabilities: that he knows next to nothing about substance.
CAN CLINTON HIDE CONTEMPT FOR HER OPPONENT AND HIS SUPPORTERS?
Whether it is with her body language, her tone or her words, Mrs Clinton cannot appear contemptuous of the voters for considering the star of The Apprentice for the office once occupied by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Just as Mr Trump will undermine his prospects if he hurls insults at Mrs Clinton, she must mask her contempt for him and persuade, not scold, voters.
She will also need a ready answer when the inevitable question comes about her use of a private e-mail server as secretary of state.
WHAT SURPRISES MIGHT THE CANDIDATES HAVE IN STORE?
Mrs Clinton may seek to needle and undermine Mr Trump in hopes of making him lash out in less-than-presidential ways. Mr Trump could launch a full-bore attack on Mr Bill Clinton's infidelity and his reaction to it, after threatening to invite Mr Clinton's alleged former mistress Gennifer Flowers to the debate.
WHAT COMES AFTER THE DEBATE?
Television networks and online streaming sites, including Facebook and Twitter, will carry the same feed. After Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump conclude their first head-to-head encounter, viewers are likely to return to their ideological silos, absorbing instant analysis from left-leaning anchors on MSNBC or commentators at right-leaning outlets like Breitbart News.
The debate itself will be subject to instant, blow-by-blow interpretation on social media.
NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST
The stakes could hardly be higher in Monday's debate, which will air from 9pm to 10.30pm (9am to 10.30am today, Singapore time) at the Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.
With barely six weeks remaining until election day on Nov 8, a Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Sunday showed that Mrs Clinton's slim advantage over Mr Trump from last month has evaporated. The two are tied at 41 per cent among registered voters, with Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson at 7 per cent and Green Party candidate Jill Stein at 2 per cent.
"I think this thing will be close right up until the end," said Mrs Clinton's running mate Tim Kaine.
Mrs Clinton's debate preparations included a focus on Mr Trump's personality as well as the substance of what will be discussed onstage, according to several Democrats with knowledge of her campaign's approach.
Her team convened a meeting last month at which longtime aide Philippe Reines, the stand-in for Mr Trump in her mock sessions, deeply studied Mr Trump's personality to parry with her as Mr Trump might.
Mr Trump's preparations by all accounts have been less meticulous. But his aides are hopeful that the debate will help close what polls have shown to be a credibility gap with Mrs Clinton, a former secretary of state, senator from New York and first lady.
As part of an effort to appear more disciplined in recent weeks, Mr Trump has put an emphasis on new policy proposals, which were sparse during the primary season, and on reining in his freewheeling style at campaign rallies.
"A victory for Donald Trump tomorrow night is answering the questions and showing America that he's ready to be president and commander in chief on Day One," Mr Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said on ABC's "This Week."
The 90-minute standoff will be organised into six 15-minute segments, with two dedicated to each of three topics: America's direction, achieving prosperity and securing America.
Moderator Lester Holt, an African-American veteran news anchor, will be the only person on the set with the two candidates. But the total audience could be as high as 100 million viewers, surpassing the previous record of 80 million who watched Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980, and rank among television benchmarks like the finales of M.A.S.H. and Cheers.
Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump will battle again on Oct 9 and Oct 19. Their running mates, Virginia Senator Kaine and Indiana Governor Mike Pence, will debate on Oct 4.
NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE