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On the roster: And they’re off! - Trump defends donation to Florida attorney general - What investigation? **cough, cough** - Congress bracing for another spending fight - Not a big Arbor Day fan

AND THEY’RE OFF!
As we head into the homestretch of the 2016 general election, the race stands much as it did at the two previous inflection points.

Donald Trump is trailing Hillary Clinton in an average of five of the most worthwhile polls by 4 points today. When the race effectively began with Trump’s clinching of the nomination in May, Trump’s deficit was slightly smaller and it nearly vanished by the end of the Republican National Convention in late July.

So while nitpickers might say Trump is not doing as well as he once was, bear in mind that he’s doing, on average, about 6 points better in a head-to-head matchup with Clinton than he was a month ago.

In polls that include the two minor-party candidates on the ballot in a majority of states, Clinton’s lead is whittled down to 2 points. As they say, the trend is his friend.

For the time being, we’re going to substantially set aside averages on state-level polls because so much state-level polling is, well, terrible. The WaPo went to great effort and expense to prove that very fact today with a 50-state, blunderbuss shot that tells us approximately nothing.

State polls will start to matter much more in the remaining nine weeks, but as we begin the final leg, we are better off thinking in larger terms about contours of the race and the electorate.

Your takeaway should be this: Trump can win, but has never led.

There are data determinists who would tell you that the outcome of this election was baked into the demographics and voter profiles of the electorate long before the race began. And there are social psychology mavens who will say that the electorate is subject to substantial swings based on events and the performance of the candidates.

Guess what? They’re both right.

If we want to think of this as instead as a war – which is a slight to the horrors of the real thing but not an unreasonable analogy for an election so vile – the electorate constitutes the resources of the opposing forces and what happens in the race reflects the vagaries of combat and strategy of the generals. They don’t call them campaigns for nothing…

Sometimes, great tactics overcome material deficits, but usually the raw numbers of men and materiel win out.

But it is now a short campaign. And for all of his mistakes, Trump is still within striking distance. Certainly his more controlled campaign personae and the addition of a pollster as campaign manager have helped him stabilize. What remains to be seen is whether he has returned to a feeling of support reached before, or if this is a new bandwidth for a new Trump?

It will also depend on whether Clinton can get her act together. The damning report from the FBI on its investigation into Clinton’s mishandling of state secrets reveals much about why Clinton was unwilling to address the issues more forthrightly with voters. The woman was evidently sweating bullets over criminal charges. Can she do better now?

We will see.

Let this stand as a reminder to everyone who is hyperventilating over the day-by-day coverage of the race. For all of the jaw-dropping moments and outrages of the past four months we are about where we began.

So, friends, as we undertake this last full measure of devotion do your best to remember the shape of things and not obsess over minutia.

[Ed. note: We can count ourselves lucky indeed that in this final furlong we have Brit Hume in the press box. Halftime Report is excited to welcome Brit to the 7 p.m. ET hour on the Fox News Channel for the duration of the contest. The track is muddy and the horses are kicking in the paddock, and we’ve got just the man for the job.]  

THE RULEBOOK: THE TOADY-TO-TYRANT EFFECT 
“Of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.” – Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 1”

[Ed. note: Whoever takes the oath of office on January 20th will not swear allegiance to the people of the United States, the nation, its military or its flag. The new chief magistrate will promise to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” So what did the Framers want in a president? Fortunately for us, they left us their notes gathered together in what every America schoolchild ought to know as “The Federalist Papers.” To help understand the point of this election and to remind us that this is a government of laws and not men in which the Constitution is supposed to be supreme, we will be sharing insights from its authors between now and the election.]   

TIME OUT: BLOOD SECRETS
Vanity Fair takes a dive into how the world’s youngest female billionaire built her fortune on a secret and watched it all fall apart with the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes’ blood-testing company Theranos: “When she first came up with the precursor to the idea of Theranos, which eventually aimed to reap vast amounts of data from a few droplets of blood derived from the tip of a finger, she approached several of her professors at Stanford, according to someone who knew Holmes back then. But most explained to the chemical-engineering major that it was virtually impossible to do so with any real efficacy… But Holmes was nothing if not determined. Rather than drop her idea, she tried to persuade Channing Robertson, her adviser at Stanford, to back her in her quest. He did.”

Flag on the play? - Email us at HALFTIMEREPORT@FOXNEWS.COM with your tips, comments or questions

SCOREBOARD
Average of national head-to-head presidential polls: Clinton vs. Trump: Clinton +4 points
Average of national four-way presidential polls: Clinton vs. Trump vs. Johnson vs. Stein: Clinton +2 points
Generic congressional vote: Democrats +4.2

TRUMP DEFENDS DONATION TO FLORIDA ATTORNEY GENERAL  
Tampa Bay Times: “Donald Trump on Monday dismissed questions about his failure to disclose an improper $25,000 contribution in 2013 to a political group connected to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was at the time considering whether to open a fraud investigation against Trump University. The donation, made by the Donald J. Trump Foundation, violated federal rules that prohibit charities from donating to political candidates. Trump and his team also failed to disclose the gift to the Internal Revenue Service, instead reporting that the donation was given to an unrelated group with a similar name — effectively obscuring the contribution. ‘I never spoke to her, first of all. She’s a fine person, beyond reproach. I never even spoke to her about it at all. She’s a fine person. Never spoken to her about it, never,’ Trump said Monday while campaigning in Ohio. ”

U.S. investigating Russian influence in November election - WaPo: “U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are investigating what they see as a broad covert Russian operation in the United States to sow public distrust in the upcoming presidential election and in U.S. political institutions, intelligence and congressional officials said. The aim is to understand the scope and intent of the Russian campaign, which incorporates ­cyber-tools to hack systems used in the political process, enhancing Russia’s ability to spread disinformation. The effort to better understand Russia’s covert influence operations is being coordinated by James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence. ‘This is something of concern for the DNI,’ said Charles Allen, a former longtime CIA officer who has been briefed on some of these issues. ‘It is being addressed.’”

WHAT INVESTIGATION? **COUGH, COUGH**
Fox News: “Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on Monday held a question-and-answer session with reporters, defending her handling of confidential material as secretary of state and answering several other pressing questions, amid criticism she has largely avoided the news media during her campaign. Among the questions was why Clinton said roughly three dozen times that she couldn’t recall specific information or events when the FBI interviewed her last month about her use of a private computer server while secretary of state, according to recently released FBI notes. ‘The fact that I couldn’t remember certain meetings doesn’t affect the commitment I had to the treatment of classified material,’ Clinton said.”

Clinton coughing fit kicks off rally - RCP: “Hillary Clinton had a massive coughing fit as she began a Labor Day campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio. She had trouble speaking and thanking local elected officials and had to stop multiple times to cough and clear her throat. Clinton's voice did not return to normal for the rest of the speech.”

CONGRESS BRACING FOR ANOTHER SPENDING FIGHT
The Atlantic: “Members of Congress return to Washington on Tuesday for the first time in seven weeks as they take a month-long break from campaigning. The short session brings high hopes and decidedly low expectations, with both parties offering a long wish list of items they’d like to accomplish in a short amount of time. The truth is, almost none of it will get done…The biggest immediate priorities for lawmakers are spending-related: The House and Senate need to agree on a long-delayed $1.1 billion aid package to combat Zika, and they need to ensure the government doesn’t shut down on September 30, when the fiscal year ends and current funding runs out. The debate over government funding is less about money than timing. Will Congress appropriate money for the entire fiscal year, thereby clearing the decks for 2017 and ensuring that the next president does not have a shutdown fight during his or her first weeks in office? Or will they punt the most important decisions into next year?”

PLAY-BY-PLAY
New anti-Trump super PAC launches today using technology to target corporations, groups against Trump - Politico

Trump releases list of 88 retired military leaders endorsing him - 
NYT

Texas’ largest newspaper declares Trump ‘no Republican and certainly no conservative’ -
Dallas Morning News

Clinton plans 150 events this week to mobilize female voters - 
WaPo

Trump insider confirms ‘Trump TV’ a plan B after election - 
WashEx

Pence says he’ll release his tax returns in the next week - 
Time

Pat Buchanan eulogizes his comrade Phyllis Schlafly - RCP

Josh Kraushaar says Pa., N.H. keys to Senate control - National Journal

Portman releases new ad with legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus - Columbus Dispatch

Pro-choice groups targeting Rubio over Zika abortions in Florida - Politico

Dems long-term plan to take back the House begins with this year’s state legislatures - The Hill

AUDIBLE: NOW?
“I stand between you and the apocalypse.” – A laughing Hillary Clinton speaking to donors at a high-end fundraiser in North Haven, N.Y., as quoted by the NYT

FROM THE BLEACHERS
“I love your publication and thoroughly enjoy reading it. I rarely see an error so am sure you must proof read it over a couple times before you launch it.  But there was a terrible error in [Friday’s] edition.  I am sure you must have meant ‘Let’s go Wildcats’ (Kansas State) rather than Mountaineers.  You will have to be a bit more careful  but otherwise, good work!” -- Tom Boley, Wamego, Kan.

[Ed. note: It may be that living so near to Manhattan, Kan., all of that purple has affected your vision… But we’ll find out on Oct. 1 whether it’s you or whether I’ve got black powder smoke in my eyes!]

“You are absolutely correct about the extra excitement and traditions marching bands bring to the college football field. As a Texas A&M Aggie, there is no greater sense of anticipation than when standing (not sitting!) in Kyle Field and hearing your fellow Aggies recite the traditional half-time announcement with the announcer, ‘Now forming at the north end of Kyle Field, the nationally famous Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band!’ Whoop!” -- John Kaufman, Katy, Texas

[Ed. note: Yours is truly one of the finest traditions in the land. I got to be in Morgantown for Saturday’s kickoff and there was sure a lump in my throat as the first strains of “Appalachian Spring” rang out in that perfect midday sunshine.]

“Who are these bogus polls referring to?  Surely not us Independents and Conservatives as none of the many I work with, talk with and rally with have received any invitations to poll with Fox News or any other news agencies. So who is being polled?  We think it’s time for this ‘Half Time Report’ to lean more to the Conservative and Independent side and check into these polls to see if they are accurate or indeed are happening at all.  We are doubtful as a group.” – B. Stevens, Concord, N.H.

[Ed. note: Ms. Stevens, our goal is to lean in no direction except those of truthfulness and decency. But you raise a point worth addressing re: polling. You can get a reliable national poll with 1,000 responses – that’s out of an electorate of something like 135 million souls. The odds of winning the Powerball jackpot on a single play are one in 292 million, so being polled is far more likely than winning that payday. But then again, an American has a one in 3.7 million chance of being killed by a shark. So put your odds of being polled somewhere between instant, unimaginable wealth and a violent death in the briny sea.]   

Share your color commentary: Email us at HALFTIMEREPORT@FOXNEWS.COM and please make sure to include your name and hometown.

NOT A BIG ARBOR DAY FAN
CBC: “Some neighbourhoods protest against low-income housing, while others take offence to transit projects. But in Brentwood [British Columbia, Canada] it’s new trees that are raising the ire of some residents. The city wants to plant 15 new trees in a small nameless park surrounded by houses in this northwest community, but its efforts were stopped by unexpected resistance after getting only eight in the ground. Ellen Burgess has been going door-to-door in the area because she thinks more trees could mean more crime. ‘If you give people more places to hide, more naughty things will be done,’ she said. Burgess worries about more ‘urban campers’ and car prowlings, and said she’s frustrated she wasn’t consulted by the city. ‘We’ve had our urban campers here and people using the trees and the bushes as their own personal toilets, and why do we want to give them more places to do that?’ She said.” 

AND NOW, A WORD FROM CHARLES…
“You don't think Russia has malevolent intent?  The one thing that explains just about everything in its foreign policy is a desire to diminish and injure the United States.  It connects the actions in Ukraine. It connects the actions in the Balkans.  It connects the actions in Syria.  It connects everything it does.  And it is succeeding.  It is the biggest threat right now.” – Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”  

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News. Sally Persons contributed to this report. Want FOX News Halftime Report in your inbox every day? Sign up here.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First" political news note and hosts "Power Play," a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace."  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.