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5 Questions That Now Loom Over Tonight's Debate

Students stand in on the stage as preparations are made for the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis.
John Locher
Students stand in on the stage as preparations are made for the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis.

It's hard to be any more gobsmacked about the state of the presidential race right now, after a video of Donald Trump making vulgar comments about women surfaced Friday, prompting more than 30 prominent Republicans to call for him to step aside as the nominee. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is also in headlines for a WikiLeaks email dump that included alleged excerpts of her speeches to Wall Street banks.

But there is a debate Sunday night, so its time to pick our jaws off the floor and contemplate 5 things we'll be watching:

1. How will Donald Trump deal with the growing firestorm in his own party over his latest lewd(est) comments?

This is the big question of the night. Trump, as usual, has given conflicting clues. In a video statement posted on Facebook, he said he was sorry ("I said it. I was wrong. I apologize") but also pivoted to an attack on Bill and Hillary Clinton saying he abused women and she intimidated Bill's accusers. Later, he retweeted messages from Juanita Broaddrick, who claims Bill Clinton raped her.

So what does Trump prioritize: contrition or defiance?

Trump tweeted: "The media and establishment want me out of the race so badly - I WILL NEVER DROP OUT OF THE RACE, WILL NEVER LET MY SUPPORTERS DOWN! #MAGA"

Mike Pence, in an extraordinary show of disloyalty for a vice presidential candidate, briefly jumped off the tightrope he's been walking for weeks and issued Trump an ultimatum for the debate.

Pence said he and his family were "offended" and said "we look forward to the opportunity he has to show what's in his heart (tonight)".

Something else might be going through Trump's mind.

The list of Republicans calling on Trump to step aside is growing, but the number is still tiny compared to the GOP leaders who prefer to condemn Trump's words while maintaining their support. House Speaker Paul Ryan, for example, said he was "sickened" by Trump's comments about grabbing women's genitals but he has not un-endorsed or called for him to step aside as the nominee.

Ryan was heckled by Trump supporters at a campaign event in Wisconsin Saturday, which gives you an idea of how deep the split is inside the GOP. Trump's die-hard supporters are still the majority of the GOP base.

2. How will Clinton deal with WikiLeaks?

The administration believes Russian security agencies authorized the hacking of Democratic party officials emails in order to influence the U.S. elections (and hurt Clinton).

WikiLeaks posted emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta — including ones from his gmail account that contain excerpts allegedly from Clinton's paid speeches to Wall Street banks.

In them she says she's for free trade and open borders and shows some sympathy for Wall Street bankers.

They represent views that she subsequently moved away from as the campaign progressed, but you can see why she chose not to release the transcripts during her primary battle with Bernie Sanders .The hacked emails could hurt her with Sanders supporters, (although Sanders himself has dismissed them) younger voters ,and blue-collar Democrats.

If there is a contest for the October Surprise prize, Trump's hot mic probably beats WikiLeaks.

Still, tonight Clinton will need to come up with a good explanation for why she said those things to a private room filled with Wall Street bankers.

3. Which candidate will do better in the town hall format?

The debate format is unusual and presents lots of pitfalls for both candidates.

There are two moderators (ABC's Martha Raddatz and CNN's Anderson Cooper), but half the questions will come from ordinary voters.

That makes the town hall debate format tricky.

It's harder to attack your opponent in a room full of real people who want you to tell them how you will make their lives better. And any question from a voter has the presumption of validity — making it hard to ignore or to pivot away to boilerplate speech chunks or talking points (a favorite tactic of presidential candidates).

But both campaigns claim this is a great format for their candidate.

Trump has spent more hours in front of a T.V. camera than any Republican presidential candidate other than Ronald Reagan. Even so, Trump's "practice town hall" in Sandown, N.H. on Thursday night did not show that Trump has learned how to connect with people the way a town hall format demands.

The audience was handpicked supporters, the questions were vetted, friendly and read from notecards by the moderator.

The Clinton campaign says the town hall format is a good one for Hillary Clinton since she prefers small listening sessions and roundtables with small businesspeople or working moms over big set piece speeches at rallies.

But most of the questions she gets in those forums are friendly softballs.

Clinton has been preparing diligently — as usual — for this debate. She presumably is working on better answers to questions about her emails, the WikiLeaks revelations and the line that was the most effective for Trump in the first debate — that he represents change and she is the staus quo.

4. Who will win, and what does that even mean?

Winning means different things for Clinton and Trump.

Trump has a monumental task. Even before the Access Hollywood hot mic audio was leaked, he was in a hole — a hole that he dug and kept digging for himself because of his poor performance in the first debate, his subsequent feud with former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, and the story about his $916 million dollar business loss/tax deduction.

So tonight Trump needs a performance so unexpectedly good that it will reverse that downward spiral.

Clinton, on the other hand, comes into the second debate with a small but growing lead in the polls. She needs to connect with voters and show them she's not the dishonest, unlikeable person they think she is. But most of all, her goal is to not screw up.

5. What will voters want the two candidates to talk about?

A large number of issues have simply been absent from the conversation this campaign — such as health care, energy, job creation and economic growth.

Will voters tonight ask for specifics on any of these topics, or are they happy to watch another chapter in the food fight that campaign 2016 has become?

The debate will begin at 9 p.m. ET. You can listen to special coverage from NPR on your local station or watch at

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Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.