[ST LOUIS] Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined both salacious charges about past sexual scandals with sober discussion of substantive topics during their second presidential debate following a weekend of unprecedented crisis in the Republican nominee's campaign.
Mr Trump revived past accusations against Mrs Clinton's husband, called for her to be investigated by a special prosecutor and put in jail over her e-mail use, and said she "has tremendous hate in her heart."
Mrs Clinton said Mr Trump's vulgar comments captured on a video demonstrate he's unfit for office and that he's spread so many falsehoods it's as if "he lives in an alternative reality."
In the middle of the debate the answers shifted toward policy, but it was unclear whether the temporary diversion from sex scandals would enable Trump to stop the free-fall of his campaign.
Before the debate started at Washington University, Republican operatives worried Mr Trump could make matters worse by attacking Mrs Clinton through the infidelities of her husband. He did exactly that, about 90 minutes before began at a nearby hotel, and again at the debate.
Mr Trump hastily called in reporters to an appearance with three women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct during his time as Arkansas governor and as president. A fourth woman who appeared with Mr Trump was a victim of rape at age 12 and Hillary Clinton was the court-appointed lawyer for the man accused of the crime. Mr Trump's official Facebook page showed the gathering live.
During the debate, he dismissed his vulgar comments captured on a 2005 video, which put his presidential bid in crisis, as nothing more than "locker room talk."
"Don't tell me about words. I absolutely apologise for those words," Mr Trump said at the debate Sunday night in St Louis. "But President Clinton was impeached."
Overshadowed by the questions about the Trump video and Mrs Clinton's e-mail use, Mr Trump conceded that the almost US$1 billion in losses he claimed on 1995 tax forms allowed him to avoid paying federal income tax. Mr Trump said he pays federal taxes and noted that other billionaires such as Clinton supporter Warren Buffett and George Soros take tax write-offs as he does.
Mrs Clinton declined to respond directly to the comments about her husband, but she lit into Mr Trump, saying his comments caught on the video are a reflection of the kind of man he is. She said by talking about her husband and the e-mails Mr Trump was trying to draw attention away from the collapse of his campaign and the defection of top Republicans.
"What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women," Mrs Clinton said. "And he has said that the video doesn't represent who he is. But I think it's clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is."
In a sign of how bitter the campaign has become, the two candidates didn't even shake hands as they took the stage. Later in the debate, Mr Trump said, "She has tremendous hate in her heart" for calling many of his supporters deplorable.
The Republican nominee threatened if elected to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state. "You should be ashamed of yourself," Mr Trump said.
The Democratic nominee said she took responsibility for the decision to use a private server rather than the government system and called it a mistake.
"There is no evidence that anyone hacked the server that I was using" or that any classified material was stolen, she said. "I know you're into big diversion tonight, anything to avoid talking about your campaign and the way it's exploding and the way Republicans are leaving you,'' Mrs Clinton said as the exchange continued.
Responding to a question about purported excerpts of speeches she gave to Wall Street that were released by WikiLeaks, Mrs Clinton tried to turn it into a question of why the Russians were trying to influence the US election by hacking and stealing documents.
She suggested that the Russian government would rather have Mr Trump in office instead of her. She also turned his complaints about a lack of transparency into a plea for him to release his tax returns.
Mr Trump denied being influence by Russia or its president, Vladimir Putin. Although the US has blamed Russia for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and and attempts to breach state election systems, Mr Trump questioned whether Russia really was behind the hacking. He said the US would benefit by having better relations with Russia.
Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump also clashed over Obamacare, the battle against terrorism, immigration and taxes.
In yet another odd moment in a unique presidential campaign, Mr Trump said he disagreed with his own running mate on what the US policy should be in terms of dealing with Russia to confront the Islamic State in Syria. "He and I haven't spoken and I disagree," he said.
The debate closed out a weekend of drama that had Mr Trump's White House bid sinking, Republican leaders openly rebelling against him, and the party that he technically leads facing its biggest crisis in decades.
In the video of Mr Trump, unearthed by the Washington Post, he bragged in obscene terms that his celebrity status allowed him to grope women in the most personal of spots. It was widely reported and played repeatedly on television all weekend. It triggered a rush of Republican officeholders - including Senator John McCain of Arizona, the party's 2008 nominee - to distance themselves or call for his exit from the race.
Mr Trump vowed never to quit his campaign and lashed out on Twitter against the Republicans abandoning him: "So many self-righteous hypocrites. Watch their poll numbers - and elections - go down!"
Some veteran Republican strategists have concluded Mr Trump is too damaged to rebound whatever he does. With less than a month before the election, the timing of the video's release could hardly be worse for Mr Trump and his party. Ballots are already being cast in about a dozen states and the situation threatens the party's hold on the Senate and potentially the House.
Even before the latest controversy, polls showed Mrs Clinton widening her lead nationally and in key states such as Ohio that Mr Trump probably needs to win.
Mr Trump was already struggling to recover from one of the worst stretches of his campaign following a shaky performance in the first debate, his comments disparaging a beauty pageant winner's weight and personal life, and a New York Times report that he may not have paid any federal taxes for almost two decades following an almost US$1 billion business loss.
The town hall-style debate featured about half the questions coming from uncommitted voters screened by Gallup, with the rest posed by moderators Martha Raddatz of ABC News, and Anderson Cooper of CNN.
The third and final presidential debate is scheduled for Oct 19 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.