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Second presidential debate promises ugliness

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Parents with small children may want to consider putting them to bed before Sunday's presidential debate, which seems certain to devolve into a TV-MA grudge of reciprocal sexual assault allegations.

The release of hot mic audio from a Trump appearance on Access Hollywood in 2005 could not have come at worse time for his debate preparation. Virtually the entire Republican Party spent Saturday racing to condemn Trump, who had to fight off questions about dropping out of the race while holed up in Trump Tower.

Already volcanic and unpredictable, and stinging from a flubbed first debate performance, Trump now walks onto the stage at Washington University with an open wound and an apparent desire to lash out at Hillary Clinton.

Beyond personal issues, Trump will have fresh ammunition from the purported transcripts of paid speeches Clinton gave that were contained in the hacked emails released Friday by Wikileaks. For instance, Trump is almost sure bring up Clinton's call for "open trade and open borders" in a speech to a Brazillian bank.

Adding to the drama, Clinton and Trump will be surrounded by American voters who will pepper the candidates with questions, thanks to the town hall format. There are no podiums to separate the candidates, who will sit on stools just feet apart from each other, and they are encouraged to roam the circular stage.

Trump has been threatening for weeks to dredge up accusations that Bill Clinton sexually harassed women, and that Hillary Clinton enabled her husband's actions. But after restraining himself in the first debate, he now seems to be chomping at the bit.

"I've said some foolish things but there's a big difference between the words and actions of other people," Trump said in his 90-second video released late Friday night to apologize for his comments on the new audio tape. "Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims."

"We will discuss this more in the coming days. See you at the debate on Sunday," Trump concluded.

On Saturday, he retweeted Juanita Broderick's claim that Bill Clinton raped her in 1978 — which Clinton has strongly denied.

Meanwhile, at a campaign event the same day, a heckler called Bill Clinton a "rapist," possibly motivated by a $5,000 reward offered by Trump ally Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist, to "anyone who can be vocally heard saying 'Bill Clinton is a rapist' while wearing the shirt [that Jones sells] or displaying similar imagery."

Trump, who has displayed no shame in bragging about his own sexual conquests, and blamed gender integration for the rise of military sexual assault, is a poor messenger on this topic.

But while Hillary Clinton has repeatedly accused Trump of making misogynistic remarks, she's steered clear of the handful of sexual assault allegations that do exist against Trump, since raising them would inevitably lead to an uncomfortable conversation her husband.

The seal has now been breached.

Democrats said Trump's comments on the tape go far beyond the what he called "locker room banter. "It's not lewd. It's sexual assault," Vice President Biden, who authored the Violence Against Women Act in the Senate, tweeted Saturday.

Clinton advisors are tight lipped about how she might respond if and when Trump invokes her husband. But she'll almost certainly try to avoid a lengthy discussion about the details of the cases and instead try to adopt some form of Michelle Obama's mantra, "when they go low, we go high."

Clinton huddled with staff for her third straight day of debate prep Saturday at a hotel near her home in Chappaqua, New York, with former aide Philippe Reines reprising his role as Trump in mock debates.

Clinton's campaign has devoted hundreds of manhours to debate prep and anticipated Trump might bring up "the 90s stuff," as Democrats euphemistically refer to it, ahead of the first debate. That seemed especially likely after Gennifer Flowers accepted Trump's invitation to attend the event as his guest (his campaign later said the invitation was not sincere and she did not appear).

Still, Clinton aides believe bringing the Bill Clinton sex scandals will backfire on Trump.

As the GOP nominee weathered an excruciating 24 hours that featured mass defections of from his party, Clinton's campaign adopted a strategic silence, in order to give Clinton herself a chance to address Trump on the biggest stage possible.

"There's not a lot of need to put spin on the ball here," a Clinton campaign official said on a conference call with allies Saturday morning, a source on a call told NBC News, explaining their quiet. "You're going to hear more about this, I'm certain, in the debate."

Most Republicans have repeatedly waved Trump off the Bill Clinton scandals, with even diehard Clinton opponents arguing it's "a recipe for blowback," as Republican strategist Rick Wilson put it.

"These voters were completely turned off and disgusted by it," Tim Miller said of focus group testing conducted for the anti-Clinton super PAC he helped run. "We found time and again these attacks turned Hillary into a victim and that it engendered sympathy for her."

But Trump is surrounded by aides who have spent years prosecuting the Clintons and seem to have convinced themselves that the sex scandals will be her Achilles heel.

Fox News host Sean Hannity, one of Trump's most vocal defenders and informal adviser to his campaign, said Friday night that the Access Hollywood tape's release could have a silver lining.

"Does it now open a door and a narrative that probably wasn't going to come prior to these tapes being released," Hannity said, referring to the Bill Clinton sex scandals. "Hillary's enabling and smearing and slandering of these women. And does it help Trump or hurt Trump?"

Meanwhile, there's a startling backlog of other controversies which have emerged just since the last debate. There's the tax returns leaked to the New York Times, the U.S. government officially blaming Russia for hacks intended to interfere in the election (Trump downplayed the Russian cyber threat in the last debate), his statement that the Central Park 5 are guilty despite their exoneration, along with his continued attacks on former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, among others.

After his dreadful first debate, and the disastrous two weeks that followed, expectations could hardly be lower. Trump needs to stop the bleeding immediately to have any hope of recovery. 

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