Donald J. Trump has had possibly the most dismal October of any presidential nominee in recent history — and the month is just more than half over. Facing accusations of sexual harassment and criticism for vulgar and demeaning comments toward women, Mr. Trump limps into Wednesday’s debate, the final one against Hillary Clinton, with polls showing him losing in nearly every state he must win.
Much can happen in politics over three weeks, and this election has been full of surprises. But by lashing out at the news media; criticizing Speaker Paul D. Ryan, his party’s highest-ranking official; and claiming without evidence that the electoral system is “rigged,” Mr. Trump appears less intent on finding a path to victory than on grasping for scapegoats to explain away an eventual loss.
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How he and Mrs. Clinton approach the debate in Las Vegas will go a long way in determining just how sordid the remainder of this race will be — and how difficult the healing process will be once it ends. Here are a few of the things we will be watching:
Is Mr. Trump worried about his brand?
Mr. Trump is already the most disliked presidential nominee in the history of polling, and his reputation is unlikely to recover if he continues to peddle conspiracy theories about election fraud and mock the looks of the women who have accused him of sexual assault. Another slashing performance against Mrs. Clinton could push away even more undecided voters — though at this point there may be few swing voters left for Mr. Trump to alienate.
But if he has little left to lose as a politician, Mr. Trump still has significant interests at stake in the race. Many of his business ventures depend on the value of his personal brand, and at some point, he may feel pressure — from family members and business partners — to protect his investments by tempering his machine-gunner’s instincts.
There’s been no evidence of such restraint from Mr. Trump, however, and a do-or-die debate may be an unlikely moment for him to shift in that direction.
Can Mrs. Clinton find the right tone?
Mr. Trump is not the only one confronting a stark choice about how to proceed. With her campaign expanding to compete in traditionally Republican-leaning states and her advantage growing in most of the battlegrounds, Mrs. Clinton is well positioned as the race enters its final days. Because Mrs. Clinton is now so heavily favored to win, the debate offers an opportunity for her to start looking beyond the election and toward unifying a country that has been divided by an ugly campaign.
After praising Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” credo, Mrs. Clinton now has a chance to turn that advice into action. And doing so would not simply be an exercise in high-mindedness to win plaudits from centrist commentators. By vowing to represent all Americans after the election, including Mr. Trump’s supporters, she can also disarm an opponent who relishes confrontation but has little aptitude for conciliation.
Will Mr. Trump torch his own party?
Snubbed by Mr. Ryan in the final month of the campaign, Mr. Trump has seemed as eager to attack turncoat leaders in his own party as to make the case against Mrs. Clinton. He has reserved special venom for Mr. Ryan, blasting him as a weak leader with bad ideas about trade and immigration, and suggesting that Mr. Ryan might be sabotaging Mr. Trump’s campaign to pave the way for a presidential run of his own in four years.
These attacks have the potential to rip apart the Republican Party in ways that will last long beyond Election Day. Should Mr. Trump use a prime-time debate to sic the Republican base on its leaders — and to cast himself, essentially, as an independent candidate challenging elites on the left and right — he could inflict damage on the party far deeper than what Mrs. Clinton might deliver on her own.
And should Mr. Trump strafe the party that nominated him, it could have immediate consequences for Republicans seeking election to the House and Senate, who cannot afford an abrupt drop in turnout from demoralized and angry voters in their own camp.
Will Mrs. Clinton seek to reposition herself?
Republicans have been overjoyed that the WikiLeaks hacks of Mrs. Clinton’s private speeches and the email account of her campaign chairman have offered new fodder against her, or have at least diverted attention from Mr. Trump’s inflammatory campaign. But the revelations to date have done more to confirm the suspicions of those on the far left than those on the far right: Namely, that she is a cautious, at times plotting, left-of-center Democrat given more to pragmatism than purity.
Now that she is comfortably ahead in blue America and making incursions into conservative redoubts like Arizona and Utah, will Mrs. Clinton flash some of the centrism she has displayed in private? She is unlikely, for example, to suddenly reverse course on her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or pledge to enact Simpson-Bowles, the moribund deficit-reduction plan. But with Mr. Trump veering into the realm of the conspiratorial, the debate offers her the chance to reach out to moderates and even some Republicans unwilling to support their nominee but still uneasy about her.
Will sexual assault dominate the debate?
After a week’s worth of sexual assault and harassment accusations against Mr. Trump, there may be moments that feel more like a courtroom drama than a conventional presidential debate. Mr. Trump has never convincingly rebutted the numerous stories from women who say he groped them without consent. On the contrary, he has veered from ridiculing his accusers to asserting flatly, and falsely, that their stories have been debunked.
Mr. Trump struggled in the second debate to address questions raised by an 11-year-old recording in which he boasted of pushing himself on women. He faces a far tougher challenge now, as the allegations against him have grown and polls show the great majority of voters siding with his accusers.
So far, Mrs. Clinton has held back from attacking Mr. Trump aggressively on this front, allowing other Democrats, like Mrs. Obama, to lead the charge. That approach is unlikely to carry through the debate.