ST. LOUIS — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton clashed in deeply personal terms in the second presidential debate on Sunday night, accusing each other of mistreating women, and signaling that the final month of the race would be an extraordinarily ugly political brawl.
Before the debate, Trump's campaign appeared to be spiraling out of control after the release of a 2005 recording in which he boasted in explicit terms about how his celebrity allowed him to sexually assault women without consequence.
Asked about the tape, which set off an avalanche of denunciations by dozens of Republicans saying they could no longer support him, Trump offered a tepid apology but dismissed his language in the recording as minor compared with the national security threats facing the country.
"This was locker room talk," Trump said, adding that he was not proud of what he had said and that he had already apologized to his family and the country. "I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do."
Clinton disagreed, arguing that the contents of the recording were more evidence that Trump was not fit to be commander in chief.
"What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women," Clinton said. "He has said the video doesn't represent who he is. I think it's clear to anyone who heard it, that represents exactly who he is."
After that heated exchange, things grew more personal. Trump dug into former President Bill Clinton's history of sexual misconduct and said that as president he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton.
Hillary Clinton avoided discussing her husband, but made the case that Trump's treatment of women was part of a larger pattern of intemperate behavior that he has shown toward Muslims, immigrants, people with disabilities and others.
Trump, who was criticized after the first debate for missing opportunities to bring up Hillary Clinton's handling of classified material as secretary of state, came prepared this time. He reminded the audience of her missing emails repeatedly, and when she said that the country should worry if Trump were ever responsible for overseeing its laws, he was ready with a retort.
"Because you'd be in jail," Trump said.
The testiness between the candidates could not have been clearer Sunday night, as Trump and Clinton continually spoke over each other.
When Clinton noted at one point that she had not interrupted Trump, he fired back: "Because you have nothing to say."
A frustrated Clinton tried to twist the knife over Trump's recent troubles, responding, "Okay, Donald, I know you're into big diversions tonight — anything to avoid talking about your campaign and how it's exploding."
A half-hour in, Trump and Clinton slowly shifted to substance, debating some of the finer points of health policy. Trump explained his proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a privatized system in which people could shop for insurance across state lines. For her part, Clinton extolled the virtues of building on the law, President Barack Obama's signature piece of legislation.
That the debate would turn to the topic of sexual impropriety seemed inevitable heading into Sunday night.
Shortly beforehand, Trump held a brief news conference in St. Louis with three women — Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey — who allege that Bill Clinton sexually assaulted or harassed them during his years in office in Arkansas or as president. They were joined by Kathy Shelton, who was 12 when she was raped by a 41-year-old in Arkansas; Hillary Clinton represented the man, who ultimately pleaded guilty to a reduced charge.
Trump's gambit, which was broadcast on Facebook Live, was intended to rattle Hillary Clinton before the debate, but it went against the advice from leading Republicans and even some of Trump's loyalists that he resist the temptation of targeting women tied to Bill Clinton.