By Steve Holland and Amanda Becker
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) – Republican candidate Donald Trump refused to say on Wednesday that he would accept the outcome of the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election, leaving open the possibility he would challenge the ultimate outcome.
In the third and final presidential debate with Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, Trump said he would wait to decide whether the outcome was legitimate.
“I will tell you at the time, I will keep you in suspense,” Trump said.
Clinton responded: “Let’s be clear about what he is saying and what that means: He is denigrating, he is talking down our democracy and I for one am appalled that someone who is the nominee for one of our two major parties would take that position.”
In a fiery debate that centred more on policy than the earlier showdowns, Trump accused Clinton’s campaign of orchestrating a series of accusations by women who said the businessman made unwanted sexual advances against them.
Trump said all of the stories were “totally false” and suggested Clinton was behind the charges. He called her campaign “sleazy.”
“I think they either want fame or her campaign did it, and I think it’s her campaign,” Trump said.
Clinton said the women came forward after Trump said in the last debate he had never made unwanted advances on women. In a 2005 video, Trump was recorded bragging about groping women against their will.
“Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth and I don’t think there is a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like,” Clinton said. She cited other minorities she said Trump had maligned.
“This is a pattern. A pattern of divisiveness, of a very dark and in many ways dangerous vision of our country where he incites violence, where he applauds people who are pushing and pulling and punching at his rallies. That is not who America is,” she said.
Trump seeks to reverse his fading momentum in an election that opinion polls show is tilting away from him. The New York businessman has raised concerns by claiming the election will be rigged against him. He has urged supporters to patrol polling places in inner cities to prevent voter fraud.
The two presidential rivals had tough but issues-based exchanges on abortion, gun rights and immigration during the 90-minute showdown.
Trump, 70, and Clinton, 68, battled sharply over the influence of Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, with Clinton calling Trump the Russian president’s puppet and Trump charging Putin had repeatedly outsmarted Clinton.
Clinton said Trump had refused to condemn Putin and Russia for recent cyber attacks.
“He’d rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian intelligence officials that are sworn to protect us,” Clinton said.
U.S. intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security have said the Russian leadership was responsible for recent cyber attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the leaking of stolen emails.
Trump rejected the idea that he was close with Putin, but suggested he would have a better relationship with Russia’s leader than Clinton.
“He said nice things about me,” Trump said. “He has no respect for her, he has no respect for our president and I’ll tell you what, we’re in very serious trouble.”
Clinton responded: ”Well that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.”
“No, you’re the puppet,” Trump retorted. “Putin has outsmarted her and Obama every single step of the way,” he said in a reference to U.S. President Barack Obama, a Democrat like Clinton.
Clinton also said Trump had been “cavalier” about nuclear weapons and should not be trusted with the nuclear codes.
Clinton promised to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would uphold a woman’s right to abortion laid out in the court’s 1973 Roe vs Wade decision, while Trump promised to appoint what he called “pro-life” justices who would overturn the decision.
Under existing law, Trump said, “You can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.”
“Honestly, nobody has business doing what I just said, doing that as late as one or two or three or four days prior to birth,” Trump said.
Clinton said Trump’s “scare rhetoric is just terribly unfortunate.”
“This is one of the worst possible choices that any woman and her family has to make and I do not believe the government should be making it,” Clinton said.
Trump said he would appoint a Supreme Court justice who would protect American gun rights.
He has said in the past that Clinton wants to “essentially abolish” the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing a right to bear arms.
Clinton said she supports gun rights, but wants additional regulations on guns, citing examples of children being hurt or killed in gun accidents. “I see no conflict between saving people’s lives and defending the Second Amendment.”
Clinton and Trump walked straight to their podiums when they were introduced at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, once again forgoing the traditional handshake as they did at the second debate last week in St. Louis, Missouri.
The debate gave Trump, making his first run for elected office, perhaps his best remaining chance to sway the dwindling number of Americans who are still undecided about their vote.
Clinton, a former secretary of state, U.S. senator and first lady, leads in national polls and in most of the battleground states where the election will likely be decided. The debate was her opportunity to make a closing argument on why she is best suited to succeed Obama.
Clinton has struggled to get past concerns about transparency raised over her use of a private email server for work communication while she was secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.
EXCHANGE OF ACCUSATIONS
The two candidates clashed over accusations that Clinton as U.S. secretary of state from 2009 to 20013 did favours for high-dollar donors to her family’s Clinton Foundation. Asked about a potential conflict of interest, she said she acted “in furtherance of our country’s values and interests.”
She and Trump talked over each other, Clinton defending her ties to the foundation, saying “there is no evidence” of a conflict, while Trump said the foundation should return millions of dollars to countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar who treat gay people harshly.
“It’s a criminal enterprise,” Trump said.
Clinton said she would be happy to compare the Clinton Foundation to Trump’s charitable Trump Foundation, which among its activities was to buy “a six-foot statue of Donald.”
(Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson in Las Vegas and Luciana Lopez in New York; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Howard Goller)