[CHICAGO] Just 90 minutes before the biggest moment of his political life, Donald Trump showed no sign of contrition as he held an impromptu press conference with the most prominent accusers in Bill Clinton's past with women.
Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, Kathy Shelton and Paula Jones huddled at the Four Seasons in St Louis just a short drive from the debate stage Sunday evening in St Louis with his presidential campaign in crisis and his party in open rebellion against him.
"Bill Clinton raped me," Ms Broaddrick said. Mr Clinton has long denied the accusations, and there never was any legal action in the case.
The stakes couldn't be higher for Mr Trump or the party after the release of a video in which he talks about women in vulgar and degrading terms. That triggered a rush of Republican officeholders to distance themselves from him or call for his exit from the race for the White House.
The debate at Washington University, which starts at 9pm Eastern time, has some party leaders worried Mr Trump will make matters worse by attacking Democrat Hillary Clinton through the infidelities of her husband, former president Bill Clinton. Even if Mr Trump offers contrition, many political strategists have concluded he is too damaged to rebound.
"It's over," said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist and senior adviser to the party's 2008 nominee, Senator John McCain. "This is not recoverable. This debate has every likelihood of being a fiasco."
Mr Schmidt predicted the crisis will prompt Mr Trump to bring up the former president's indiscretions, something the billionaire businessman had threatened to do after the first debate and then backed away from.
"It is a certainty that Trump will go down the only path that exists for him, which is try to frame this as a double-standard issue with regard to Bill Clinton," Mr Schmidt said.
Mr Schmidt's old boss, Senator McCain, became the most prominent Republican yet to withdraw support for Mr Trump over the weekend, saying in a statement Saturday that it had become "impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy."
Mr Trump still has his Republican defenders, and on the Sunday morning round of political talk shows they were represented by Rudy Giuliani. The former New York mayor told ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" that Mr Trump's comments were "reprehensible".
But he invoked the Catholic concept of absolution from sin, and sought to draw a line under the controversy: "That was then, and this is now."
Mr Giuliani raised the issue of the Clinton marriage, a possible precursor of arguments that the Republican candidate will use Sunday evening. "I think Donald Trump understands that tonight's debate was always going to be very important, and the stakes have gotten a lot higher," Mr Giuliani said. "I think he'll be up to it."
The Trump campaign flagged another line of attack on Sunday, e-mailing a CNN report about Mrs Clinton's alleged support for "open borders" in the Western hemisphere. Her comment was taken from a publication by the website Wikileaks of hacked e-mails purporting to show excerpts of Mrs Clinton's paid Wall Street speeches. Mr Trump has campaigned hard against trade agreements, accusing Mrs Clinton and other Democrats of backing arrangements that cost American jobs.
Also coming out for Mr Trump on Sunday were two key GOP moneymen. Steven Mnuchin, Mr Trump's campaign finance chair, and Lew Eisenberg, who holds the equivalent post for the Republican National Committee, wrote in an e-mail that they're still "committed to have Donald Trump in the White House," according to Politico.
The two men plan to host a conference call in the coming week that will provide an "update" on the situation, Politico reported.
A survey conducted Saturday by Politico and Morning Consult found that 74 per cent of Republican voters thought the party should continue to back Mr Trump, even after the tape's release.
But pollsters for CBS News, who had been surveying the battleground states of Ohio and Pennsylvania just prior to the scandal, called some of those voters back on Friday night and Saturday and found that eight in 10 had seen or heard of the video. Almost half said it made them think worse of Mr Trump, although those responders mostly weren't backing the Republican anyway.
President Barack Obama weighed in on Mr Trump's remarks in an appearance on Sunday afternoon while pointedly avoiding the most offensive words. "I don't need to repeat it; there are children in the room," Mr Obama said, speaking in Chicago at a fundraiser for Representative Tammy Duckworth's Senate bid. He said the comments fitted a pattern in which Mr Trump has also demeaned minorities, immigrants, people of different religions and the disabled during the campaign.
Fallout from the 2005 Trump video, which played repeatedly on television all weekend, is likely to overshadow other topics at the debate. It'll be the subject of the initial set of questions, with Mrs Clinton lined up to speak first, CNN reported Sunday.
After the video's release on Friday, CNN also uncovered audio of Mr Trump talking with radio shock-jock Howard Stern in which the two men engaged in lewd conversations about women, including Mr Trump's daughter, Ivanka.
Mr Trump's skills as a showman likely won't be enough to pull him from the muck he's descended into after the recording showed him bragging in obscene terms that his celebrity status allowed him to grope women.
The former reality television star vowed Saturday to remain in the race and party leaders appeared to have few options to remove him from the top of the ticket.
Mrs Clinton, the first female major party nominee, has held off addressing the controversy until the debate, when she can exploit its potency in front of a larger audience. Given the weekend drama, viewership could approach the record political audience of more than 84 million for the first debate on Sept 26.
With less than a month before the election, the timing of the video's release could hardly be worse for Mr Trump and the Republican Party. Ballots are already being cast via early and absentee voting in some states. The impact threatens the party's hold on the Senate and potentially the House.
Even before the latest Trump controversy, recent polls showed Mrs Clinton widening her lead nationally, and in key states such as Ohio that Mr Trump probably needs to win.
Mr Trump had been struggling to recover from one of the worst stretches of his campaign following his shaky performance in the first debate, his comments disparaging a beauty pageant winner's weight and personal life, and reports about his taxes.
Sunday's debate will be a town hall-style event, with about half the questions coming from uncommitted voters screened by Gallup, and the rest posed by moderators Martha Raddatz, of ABC News, and Anderson Cooper, of CNN.
After being widely labelled as unprepared for the first debate, Mr Trump practiced taking audience questions at campaign appearances last week. The town-hall format, one that Mrs Clinton has considerably more experience with, will allow the candidates to sit or roam the stage instead of standing behind lecterns.
The format "could be problematic for Mr Trump," said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. "He ran out of gas toward the end of the first debate, after standing behind a podium for 90 minutes without commercials and breaks."
It may not matter. Mr Schmidt, the Republican strategist, said he can't imagine how Mr Trump can win the election at this point.
"While you have two unpopular candidates for president, there's only one fit candidate for the role of commander in chief," he said.
"Whatever her flaws may be, people will look at her and say that she possesses the requisite qualities of dignity to be a competent and psychological fitness to be the commander in chief."