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Trump and Clinton refused to shake hands before their acrimonious debate in St. Louis.

CREDIT: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

A Bitter, and Personal, Presidential Debate

Clinton and Trump attacked each other sharply, as Trump sought to stop a Republican exodus from his campaign

Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump met for a second, even more antagonistic presidential debate last night, capping a weekend in which dozens of Republican lawmakers withdrew their support for Trump over vulgar remarks he made in an 11-year-old video. Some Republicans went further and urged him to drop out of the race.

The controversial recording, obtained by The Washington Post and released to the public on Friday, captured Trump in a private moment in 2005 making lewd comments about women during an exchange with one of the hosts of NBC’s Access Hollywood. The recording led some prominent Republicans like Senator John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican nominee for president, to renounce their support for Trump. Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, called on Trump to abandon his campaign and let his running mate, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, head a new ticket.

“Donald Trump should withdraw and Mike Pence should be our nominee effective immediately,” Thune tweeted on Saturday.

In response, Trump apologized for his behavior, but dismissed it as "locker room talk" and vowed he would never quit.

During the debate, he sought to turn the tables with an attack on Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton. “If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse,” Trump said. “Mine are words, and his was action.” His remark was a reference to some of Bill Clinton’s scandals involving women. In 1998, President Clinton was impeached for lying to a federal grand jury about his relationship with a 22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. He was later acquitted by the Senate and remained in office.

Hillary Clinton didn’t answer these accusations directly during the debate but responded by quoting First Lady Michelle Obama’s advice about dealing with unfair attacks: “When they go low, you go high.” Earlier in the weekend she had tweeted about the Trump video saying, “We cannot allow this man to become president.”

Refusing to Shake Hands

Coming in the aftermath of the video revelations, the debate was an unprecedented political spectacle. Commentators agreed it was a deeply ugly moment in American politics, featuring the kind of personal insults rarely displayed by candidates seeking the highest office in the land. The atmosphere was even more tense than usual throughout the 90-minute town-hall-style debate in which members of the audience and the moderators posed questions. Trump and Clinton refused to shake hands at the beginning of the debate, breaking with custom. At one point, Trump accused Clinton of having “tremendous hate in her heart.”

The very first question of the evening went directly to the matter of how crude the national debate has become: “Knowing that educators assign viewing the presidential debates as students’ homework, do you feel you’re modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s youth?” asked Patrice Brock, one of the audience members, which was made up of undecided voters.

“That was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it,” Trump said of the video. “I am a person who has great respect for people, for my family, for the people of this country.”

Clinton responded that the controversial video revealed Trump’s true beliefs.

“You know, with prior Republican nominees for president, I disagreed with them on politics, policies, principles, but I never questioned their fitness to serve,” Clinton said. “Donald Trump is different.”

More so than during their first debate, Trump repeatedly brought up Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state and accused her of wrongdoing for deleting 33,000 emails. He vowed that as president he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her, even saying at one point that if he were president she’d be in jail. (His campaign later said he wasn’t actually threatening Clinton with jail; just saying he’d appoint a special prosecutor.)

Though part of the debate focused on the aftermath of the Access Hollywood video, there was some discussion of more substantive issues, including energy, healthcare, and the escalating violence in Syria’s civil war.

Asked about whether he had changed his earlier proposal to bar Muslim immigrants from entering the U.S., Trump said his plan was for “extreme vetting.” Trump has previously described this as a screening test designed to keep out anyone who “does not share American values.”

Clinton responded that it was “important for us, as a policy” not to ban people based on religion. “How do you do that?” she asked. “We are a country founded on religious freedom and liberty.”

Asked about the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, Trump called the program “a disaster” because, he said, premiums have gone way up and coverage has suffered.

Clinton acknowledged that people’s out-of-pocket costs had gotten higher, but she said she wants to improve Obamacare rather than repeal it because it fixed problems like women being charged more for healthcare than men. “I want very much to save what works and is good about the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “But we’ve got to get costs down.”

On tax policy, Trump said he’d cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent to spur job growth and investment and would also cut taxes for the middle class. He said Clinton “is raising your taxes folks. Look at me. She’s raising your taxes really high.”

Clinton vowed that no one making less than $250,000 a year would see taxes rise under her plan. She said she wanted those earning more than $1 million a year to pay more and that she supports a surcharge on incomes above $5 million a year. She accused Trump of not paying any federal income taxes “in maybe 20 years. It was a reference to the recent publication by The New York Times of parts of Trump’s 1995 tax returns, showing a $916 million loss in his business, which experts said could have enabled him to avoid paying federal income taxes for up to 18 years.

Asked directly if he had used the business loss to avoid paying federal income taxes, Trump replied, “Of course I do. Of course I do.” Trump has steadfastly refused to release his income tax returns; Clinton and every other presidential candidate in the past 40 years have released their tax records.

With Trump more aggressively attacking his opponent in this debate, Clinton stuck to the central theme of her campaign: that she’s an experienced public servant and Trump is unfit to be president.

The debate ended on a surprisingly civil note. The last question from the audience asked each candidate to name one positive thing about each other.

“I respect his children,” Clinton said. “His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald. I don’t agree with nearly anything else he says or does, but I do respect that.”

For his part, Trump said of his opponent, “She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She’s a fighter. I disagree with much of what she’s fighting for.”

The third and final presidential debate will be held on October 19 at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

With reporting by The New York Times.

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