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Presidential hopefuls square off over Covid-19, climate, racism

In the final presidential debate, Biden and Trump manage to keep cool and composed

Mr Trump (right) and Mr Biden traded charges of secretly taking money from foreign interests, after the former vice-president addressed head-on Mr Trump's efforts to portray him as corrupt.

Nashville, Tennessee

PRESIDENT Donald Trump turned in a more composed and disciplined debate performance Thursday night, offering a marked contrast to the chaos and fury that defined his first battle with Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

But even as the president earned credit for engaging in a more civil exchange of views - and maybe even brought a few doubters back into his camp - there was little reason to think he had scored the kind of dramatic victory he badly needed to turn around a race that polls show he's losing.

Mr Trump's supporters had spent more than a week teeing up an attack on the foreign business dealings of Mr Biden's son Hunter, but standing next to Mr Biden during the final presidential debate in Nashville, Mr Trump failed to make it stick. Mr Biden managed to flip it back on Mr Trump, pointing out news reports showing it was the president's company that had a bank account in China, not him.

Mr Biden's best moments occurred when he resisted taking the bait as Mr Trump accused him of being corrupt, leading Mr Biden to call out Mr Trump for failing to release a single tax return. "What are you hiding?" Mr Biden said.

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The former vice president was less sure-footed elsewhere in the debate. When under pressure from Mr Trump, he appeared to endorse the eventual elimination of the oil industry. Mr Trump immediately seized on Mr Biden's remark for voters in all-important Pennsylvania, where Mr Biden's position on reducing fracking wins him few friends in a state where fracking employs thousands of people.

After the first debate devolved into a mess of cross-talk and bitterness, this session was notable for its substance, as voters could watch the two men lay out their closing arguments on almost every topic - the coronavirus, immigration, race relations - and see the clear choice they face less than two weeks before Election Day.

Mr Trump scored when he resurrected the parts of his persona that won him fans in 2016, contrasting his outsider's stance to Mr Biden's 47 years in public life. And, on the coronavirus, Mr Trump accused Mr Biden of supporting further economic shutdowns that have crushed the US economy.

Even as the president's allies crowed that the president's tone could bring reluctant voters back home - or erase the memory of a first debate where even his debate coach said he was "too hot" - indications were that he had done little to change the underlying dynamics.

A CNN instant poll of the debate showed 53 per cent of respondents thought Mr Biden had prevailed, versus just 39per cent for Mr Trump - a result roughly mirroring the president's current deficit in the polls. Respondents showed essentially no change in how they conceived of the candidates' favourability.

Mr Trump's steadier approach occasionally faltered, such as when he attacked the IQ level of immigrants seeking asylum and offered a scattered defense of his foreign financial entanglements and tax payments. Democrats also seized on Mr Trump at one point seemingly belittling family dinner-table conversations during times of economic strife, after Mr Biden looked into the camera and made a direct appeal to those voters.

Mr Biden is leading Trump by 7.9 per cent nationally in the RealClearPolitics polling average, and FiveThirtyEight's predictive model gave the former vice president an 87 per cent chance of victory heading into Thursday night's contest.Mr Trump has not led in a public poll of Pennsylvania - perhaps the most crucial battleground state - since May, and recent surveys show Mr Biden with slight leads in states like Florida and North Carolina where victories would decimate the president's path to re-election.

The president's polling woes are reflected in his campaign's finances. Mr Trump's re-election campaign ended September with only US$63.1 million in the bank, an amount dwarfed by Mr Biden's $177.3 million cash on hand. And more than 47 million Americans have already cast their ballots - which would equal over a third of the total votes counted in the last presidential election.

Still, Mr Trump overcame a polling deficit to win in 2016. And it wasn't until after the first debate - where Mr Trump's frequent interruptions were widely criticised - that the former vice president posted a double-digit polling advantage, underscoring the extent to which the contests that draw tens of millions of viewers can shake up a race.

Unlike that contest, there were moments for Mr Trump and his supporters to feel encouraged by on Thursday night.

His allies thought Mr Biden made two major missteps on energy policy - first by challenging his campaign to post video showing he had ever advocated ending fracking, and then by acknowledging he wanted to eventually eliminate the oil industry.

"I would transition from the oil industry, yes. The oil industry pollutes significantly. It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time." Mr Trump responded with incredulity. "Basically what he is saying is he would destroy the oil industry. Would you remember that Texas? Would you remember that Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Ohio?" Mr Biden later said he hoped the oil industry would be gone by 2050.

Unlike other recent appearances, the president was able to keep his discussion of the coronavirus pandemic relatively positive. He painted his own recovery from the disease as emblematic of the nation as a whole, and accused Mr Biden - who described a nation entering a "dark winter" - of supporting further economic shutdowns that left the Democratic candidate on the defensive.

"We can't close up our nation or we're not going to have a nation," he said. Mr Trump repeatedly cast Biden as a career politician, finding ways to inject that theme into discussions on everything from race relations to climate change. When the former vice president sought to sidestep a discussion of his son's business dealings by dismissing the allegation as "malarkey" that didn't affect ordinary Americans, Mr Trump accused him of employing a typical political ploy.

The president's strategy underscored the extent to which his election strategy is now pinned on tarnishing the former vice president, who holds a substantial favorability advantage among voters. While 49 per cent of voters say they have a favourable opinion of Mr Biden, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released this week, just 40 per cent say the same of Mr Trump. And while only 4 per cent say they dislike Mr Biden, 55 per cent of likely voters say they have an unfavourable opinion of the president. BLOOMBERG

READ MORE: Trump's disappearing populism goes on full display

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