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Surprise! This was a real debate.

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Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.REUTERS

The third time was the charm for the bi-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates to actually conduct, you know, a debate. The dialogue largely focused on issues such as the Supreme Court, the economy, immigration, and foreign policy, including the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

At the same time, the final 90 minutes of debate time during this general election had the sense of a finished contest. The campaign manager of John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign said he believes Hillary Clinton could win in a rout. A poll of voters in New Hampshire, a swing state, released hours before the debate showed Clinton with a 15-point lead.


And then there is history: No candidate has ever come back from the deficit that Donald Trump currently has in October national polls.

Overall the debate had no winners or losers. But given that Clinton is ahead in national and swing state polls, and she walked away from the stage without devastating damage, she may have officially won the race Wednesday night.

• There was no watercooler moment. There were no Trump-sniffles. There was no Ken Bone. There was nothing that will go viral. If you didn't watch the debate, you didn't miss a major cultural moment.

• But if there's a replay moment on cable news, it's this: After weeks of suggesting that the election was "rigged," there's been an open question as to whether Trump would accept the election results if he loses. During the third debate, he was asked directly about this, and he said, "I will tell you at the time. I will keep you in suspense."

Clinton responded, "That's horrifying."

• Of the three presidential debates, this was the most substantial. Americans may not have a better sense about what these candidates would do for them, but they did get a better sense about where these candidates are on the issues. It's been an extremely personal campaign, but this was a debate that at least in some sense was about the ideological underpinnings of the two major political nominees and parties.


• Since Clinton has a growing lead in national polls, there was the question about the strategy for each candidate. Would Clinton try to just run out the clock? Would Trump swing for the fences and go for a home run?

• The answers for both questions: No. Clinton came prepared to disqualify Trump. Trump moved away from Bill Clinton's past sexual controversies and kept the focus on Hillary.

• There might be no bigger difference between the two nominees than on the topic of immigration, and the third debate — finally — offered a sustained discussion on the topic. Not surprisingly, both candidates used the topic to play to their respective bases. Perhaps that's because polls suggest that more moderate, swing voters place higher value on jobs and the economy.

• The Supreme Court should be a key issue in the race because the next president could appoint as many as three justices. It's especially important for Trump because major Evangelical leaders and Republicans who oppose abortion rights have suggested they can overlook Trump's faults as a candidate for only one reason: He could appoint antiabortion justices.

In response to a question about overturning Roe v. Wade, Trump made his answer more complicated than necessary. But his graphic language about partial birth abortion will play well with the GOP's base.


• Much of the middle of the debate was dedicated to the topic of the fitness for office. The block could also be titled: How can the American people live with either of you as president? They could have ended the debate right there with a single, closing argument for both candidates: Don't vote for the other person.

• For the entire presidential campaign — all two years! — polls have shown the economy is the top issue. Twenty days away from the election, it is worth noting that these candidates don't simply disagree on the best way to create jobs, they disagree fundamentally on the health of the economy. Clinton sees the economy as recovering, however unevenly. Trump sees the economy as horrible and almost purely in the framework of a declining manufacturing sector.

• The 2016 presidential election may have ended another tradition: the ceremonial handshake. In two of the three general election debates, the two major party nominees did not shake hands. In the second debate, both Trump and Clinton got within distance where they could have done so, but they declined.

In this third and final debate, the lack of handshake was scripted: The candidates came on stage and stood so far away from each other that it was never going to happen.