LAS VEGAS — The world is watching to see whether a former casino magnate turned politician bets it all here Wednesday night.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump comes to Sin City with the cards running cold: According to the RealClearPolitics polling averages, Democrat Hillary Clinton led Trump ahead of the third and final debate by about 7 percentage points.
The question is whether Trump can inflict political damage on Clinton in the televised showdown — or whether he'll dig his hole deeper.
Trump's campaign has been buffeted by a damaging string of accusations of sexual assault, which he has denied. While he retains many loyal women followers, the scandals appear to have eroded his standing with female voters nationally, according to a just-released CBS News poll.
That, plus Trump's relatively little debate experience compared to Clinton's, adds to his challenge — as does his mixed-review performance in the pair's Missouri face-off on Oct. 9.
In St. Louis, Trump was more on the defensive than he'd been in his first debate, thanks to the allegations engulfing his White House bid. He came to the fight intent on flipping the script.
While he landed some crowd-pleasing rhetorical jabs regarding persistent questions about Clinton's tenure at the State Department, Trump seemed overanxious at times, interrupting his rival and going off on the moderators.
"If she's smart, Hillary will 'rope-a-dope' Trump, playing cautious to guard her lead. He'll feel compelled to win this one outright, as he should, but he needs to be mindful of the 'Lazio Lesson': Don't get too aggressive," Caputo warned, alluding to the notorious debate blunder of Clinton's GOP opponent for U.S. Senate in 2000.
Bottom line, Caputo said, Trump's got another high-stakes tightrope walk ahead of him. "If he is too tough on Clinton in Vegas, she'll turn that on him so fast his head will spin, especially now," he said.
Easier said than done, if history and Trump's signature slash-and-burn style are any indication.
Team Trump notably engaged in psychological warfare ahead of the second debate, seeking to throw the Democrat off her stride by holding a news conference with three women who've accused her husband of sexual assault.
This time, per the Washington Post, Trump's guests will include "President Obama's estranged half brother and the mother of an American official who died in Benghazi, Libya."
Viewers, of course, will judge the candidates by more than their words alone, and despite endless commentary about efforts to make him more "presidential," Trump isn't known for hiding his disdain for his opponents.
Vanessa Van Edwards, who researches and writes about human behavior, said Trump might fare better in Las Vegas than in past debates by dialing down what she called his "alpha behavior."
"Broad body language is good; aggressive pointing, jabbing and stalking will need to calm down. Second, he needs to warm up a bit. He should listen with more of a neutral face and less frenetic movement and touching everything in sight."
Evincing strength is one thing; showing "anger and contempt" another, she said.
"Lastly, he needs to stop sniffing. Just. Stop. Sniffing."