Trump comes out swinging and wins second debate

It’s a strange time to be in St. Louis.

For the first time since 2010, the Cardinals failed to make the playoffs. The St. Louis Rams are no more, having returned to their Los Angeles past.

Maybe strangest of all: the political Shocktoberfest that is the 2016 presidential election, culminating in the second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at the city’s Washington University.

Between Friday’s release of the 2005 video laced with Trump vulgarities and the WikiLeaks data dump of Clinton campaign emails and the candidate’s Wall Street speech excerpts, this debate didn’t lack for build-up.

To say nothing of morbid curiosity: a pre-debate survey of Washington University students came up with this summation: “a gruesome debate about who is more an enabler of sexual assault.”

Sure enough, a question about the video was brought up, right out of the chute, by CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

Trump admitted embarrassment, but quickly dismissed it as “locker-room talk.” Cooper pushed him on the subject – was he a groper, did he force himself on women? – but Trump wouldn’t play along.

Clinton, however, did. She questioned Trump’s fitness for the job, then branched out from the video to past Trump comments about immigrants, African-Americans, POW’s and those with disabilities. “The question our county must answer is this is not who we are.”

The smiling Hillary we saw throughout the first debate on Long Island? She didn’t make the trip west.

And then it got even more personal. Trump referenced the four women in the audience – Paula Jones, Kathy Shelton, Juanita Broderick and Kathleen Willey – who’ve accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct.

Did Clinton defend her husband? Actually, she invoked Michelle Obama: “when they go low, you go high.” Make of that what you will. Then she belittled Trump for failing to make past apologies, after which Trump upped the ante by promising to sic a special prosecutor against Clinton if he’s elected.

Mercifully, after 30 minutes of such rancor, the Average Joes (in the audience and on Facebook) got their turn.

The highlights:

An American Muslim woman asked Trump about what to do about Islamophobia on the rise. Trump called for the Muslim community to work more closely with law enforcement. Clinton went into a broader talk about defeating ISIS.

That segued into one of Clinton’s weaker moments: defending her plan to expand the Syrian refugee population from 10,000 to 65,000. Clinton invoked a bloodied boy, but couldn’t resist trying to bloody Trump as a recruiting tool for ISIS and chumming the waters yet again over his Iraq war position.

(Later, both candidates stumbled through the question of what to do about Aleppo – Trump sounded naïve; Clinton put herself in a box by ruling out ground forces).

Then came the question of the WikiLeaks passage in which Clinton supposedly said a politician sometimes needs “a public and a private position” on certain topics. Hillary tried to make it sound Lincolnesque. Equating Wall Street reform in a paid with the fight to abolish slavery? Sounds like a stretch.

The closest anyone got to a question on the economy and tax reform? This query directed at Trump: “what specific provisions will you change to ensure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share in taxes?”

Two complaints about this debate:

The overlap between audience and Facebook question led to a lot of talk about Syria and precious little about the country’s tense mood. Race, the Supreme Court, guns and abortion all were pureed into one serving at the 86-minute mark.

And the moderators: CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz were more aggressive in policing Trump’s time and parsing his words (Raddatz, in particular, on Aleppo). Must there always be a question of a fair fight?

A funny thing about this race: reports of Trump’s political death may be exaggerated. A Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted immediately after the controversial audio was released gave Clinton a 42%-38% lead over Trump in a four-way race. Previously, it was 41%-39% in her favor.

Something else the poll revealed: only 12% of Republicans think Trump should quit the race; 74% think the GOP establishment should continue to back him.

The quandary this presents for Republicans: their nominee is wounded, he struggles to crack the 40% barrier; for down-ticket candidates, shunning the nominee risks alienating the GOP base.

I give this debate to Trump. He was in better form than the first encounter in Hofstra. This time around, he wasn’t as clunky when defending his record. Unlike the first debate, when he started strong but fell apart, Trump improved as the night went on.

Add to that his decision to bring along the Bill Clinton accusers – the equivalent of Hillary dropping Alicia Machado on Trump at the end of the previous debate – and Trump had good night in terms of strategy and surpassing expectations.

Clinton’s style and presentation were better than Trump’s – she seemed visibly more comfortable cradling the mike and approaching the audience.

But I’m subtracting points from Clinton for this reason: she could have spent more time on the high road, given Trump’s recent travails, but too often she needlessly threw an elbow.

In all, it was an evening that will be hard to forget. Trump thinks Clinton should go to jail. Judging by the look on her face, Clinton would like to condemn Trump to a more subterranean existence – which is funny, since it’s Trump who thinks Hillary is satanic.

And here you thought Hell was that debate stage.