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Wild Ten Days Set The Stage For Final 2016 Presidential Debate

Accusations of sexual assault, hacked emails, GOP infighting, and claims that the election could be rigged will set the stage for what could be the most contentious showdown yet.
TOPSHOT - US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands after the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 9, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn BeckROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty ImagesROBYN BECK / AFP - Getty Images

If a week can be a lifetime in politics, the last ten days of the presidential campaign could qualify as a century. And the sheer number of headlines generated between the final two presidential debates would be enough to fill an entire campaign season in most election years.

But 2016 is not most election years, and accusations of sexual assault, hacked emails, GOP infighting and steady warnings of a potentially “rigged” are setting the stage for what could be the most contentious showdown yet when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet for their final debate Wednesday night.

The last debate, on October 9, took place in the immediate aftermath of the the release of a 2005 tape which caught the now-GOP nominee bragging about groping women. Trump offered an apology for his remarks and, in the debate, denied ever having done the things described on the tape. He also countered the revelation by inviting a group of women who had accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual harassment, holding a surprise press event with them just minutes prior to the debate.

And that was just the beginning of a wild ride. Here’s a recap of what's happened since:

Trump Accusers Surface: A number of women have gone public with accusations against Trump since the release of that 2005 tape -- and the candidate's insistence in the debate that he never acted in the manner his self-described "locker room talk" would suggest. Three days later the New York Times published the accounts of two women who said the real estate mogul groped or kissed them. In the following days a number of women, including a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” came forward to say Trump made unwanted sexual advances towards them.

Trump has complained his accusers’ stories are “100% made up” and even suggested that some of the women who have come out against him are not attractive enough for his attention.

The allegations prompted Trump’s wife, Melania, to give rare interviews defending her husband. "I believe my husband. I believe my husband...This was all organized from the opposition," she said during an interview on CNN on Monday.

Trump and Paul Ryan Battle: The day after the second debate, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced he would no longer support his party's nominee and instead focus on down-ballot races to help the GOP maintain control of Congress. Ryan didn't pull his endorsement but the message was clear and it resulted in an onslaught of criticism from the Republican nominee, who said the top Republican is "a man who doesn't know how to win."

Ryan was not the only Republican to back off Trump after the tape. Around 50 other elected Republicans have either demanded he drop out or said they won’t vote for him.

"It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to," Trump tweeted last week in the wake of the defections, seemingly freed from the burdens of carrying his fellow Republicans to the election's finish line.

Wikileaks: The continued releases by Wikileaks of emails allegedly hacked from a top Clinton aide has proven to be a headache for the Democratic nominee. Though a major revelation has yet to be discovered, campaign chair John Podesta’s purported emails have provided fodder for Clinton’s foes who have used them to reinforce attacks against her honesty and transparency.

On Monday, the Trump campaign jumped on a message they said revealed a supposed “quid pro quo” between the State Department and FBI that involved re-classifying some of the emails sent to Clinton’s private server. The FBI official who suggested it offered to look into the email classification in exchange for a State Department official’s help to increase FBI personnel in Iraq. The FBI said it did not change the classification of the message and the department official who suggested the exchange was referred to the Office of Professional Responsibility.

A "Rigged" Election? As Trump’s polling numbers continue to falter, the Republican has made baseless claims about a potentially rigged election a rallying cry for supporters. “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day,” Trump tweeted on Monday.

Running mate Mike Pence said on “Meet The Press” on Sunday that Trump would “absolutely accept the result of the election.” But he shifted his tune slightly on Monday after White Press secretary Josh Earnest said the Obama administration is "not at all" concerned about election tampering, and "neither is Mike Pence."

The Indiana governor responded by asking supporters in Ohio to "respectfully participate" in poll watching on Election Day.

Trump’s Plummeting Poll Numbers: Clinton has opened up an 11-point lead over Trump, according to a national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted entirely after the second debate. Battleground polling has also shown Clinton gaining in key swing states like Florida, Colorado and Pennsylvania. The latest NBC News|SurveyMonkey Weekly Election Tracking Poll released Tuesday found Clinton with a six-point lead nationally over Trump.

The Clinton campaign responded this week by announcing First Lady Michelle Obama would made a stop in traditionally red Arizona, where an NBC News/WSJ/Marist poll released last month found Clinton and Trump running neck-and-neck. The campaign is also putting more resources into Missouri and Indiana, and even run ads in Texas.

Notable mentions: In such an action-filled week, it’s easy to overlook other notable events that would have been big deals during most other election cycles. One of those involved Trump threatening to jail his political opponent in front of a nationally televised audience. At the second debate Trump said, if elected, he would “instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.” Moments later, after Clinton quipped that it’s a good thing Trump is not in charge of the country’s laws, he added: “Because you’d be in jail.”

“Lock her up” has long been a rallying cry for Trump supporters. But he has doubled down on the claim since the second debate, routinely saying at rallies that Clinton “should be in jail.”

And in a powerful rebuke to Trump, First Lady Michelle Obama dissected Trump’s comments about women in what was one of the most memorable speeches of the campaign. “I can’t stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted,” she said at a campaign event for Clinton in New Hampshire.

"This is disgraceful. It is intolerable. Doesn't matter what party you belong to...I know it's a campaign, but this isn't about politics. It's about basic human decency. It's about right and wrong," she added.

If the past ten days are any indication, the next three weeks could be just as eventful.