LAS VEGAS — Hillary Clinton accused Donald Trump of being “a puppet” for Russian President Vladimir Putin and urged voters to send a signal in this presidential election by rejecting the kind of candidate who has been accused of demeaning and assaulting women, mocking the disabled and inciting violence, as the two candidates faced off Wednesday in their final debate.
Mr. Trump came out flat but quickly turned combative, repeatedly interrupting Mrs. Clinton with one-line gibes. He also refused to agree to accept the results on Election Day, saying there is too much evidence of potential fraud for him to do that right now, and he will have to “look at it at the time.”
“That’s horrifying,” Mrs. Clinton countered, saying it was yet another example of Mr. Trump lashing out in a manner unbecoming for someone who would sit in the White House. “He is denigrating, he is talking down our democracy. And I, for one, am appalled.”
The debate, held at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and moderated by Fox News’ Chris Wallace, finally delved deeply into social issues but also featured some of the toughest questions of the campaign on the fitness of either candidate to hold the White House.
Both candidates agreed — a rare point for the campaign — that the Supreme Court was at stake, and that they have very different visions for who the next justices should be.
Mr. Trump promised pro-life picks who would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established a national constitutional right to abortion.
“That will happen automatically,” said Mr. Trump, adding that Mrs. Clinton’s position on abortion would allow babies to be ripped from the womb just before birth.
“I think it’s terrible. If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby,” he said.
Mrs. Clinton said she would prevent that by appointing justices who would preserve Roe v. Wade but who would overturn another precedent, the 2010 Citizens United decision that ruled some campaign finance restrictions violate the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech.
She also defended her support for partial-birth abortion, calling it a “painful” decision on which the government should not intervene, appealing to female voters with a strong condemnation of Mr. Trump’s words.
“I do not think the United States government should be stepping in and making those most personal of decisions. So, you can regulate [abortion] if you are doing so with the life and the health of the mother taken into account,” she said.
Mr. Trump repeatedly found himself playing defense against self-inflicted wounds to his campaign, including a number of women who have come forward in recent weeks accusing him of unwanted advances and sexual assault.
“First of all, those stories have been largely debunked. I don’t know those people. I have a feeling how they came. I think it was her campaign that did it,” Mr. Trump said. “I didn’t even apologize to my wife, who is sitting right here, because I didn’t do anything. I think [the women] want either fame or her campaign did it. And I think it’s her campaign.”
Mrs. Clinton, though, said the accusations fit with a pattern of demeaning behavior Mr. Trump has shown throughout the years, reciting his statements that seem to indicate his accusers were making up their stories because he didn’t find them attractive.
“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,” she said. “I think it’s really up to all of us to demonstrate who we are and who our country is, and to stand up and be very clear about what we expect from our next president.”
Mrs. Clinton faced fewer tough questions and ducked the roughest of them.
When confronted with her own words in private speeches leaked to WikiLeaks about “open borders,” she countered by saying the emails that revealed her speeches, were hacked from her campaign chairman’s account by Russian operatives trying to sway voters against her.
“He’d rather have a puppet” in Mr. Trump, she said.
“You’re the puppet,” Mr. Trump retorted.
He also disputed Mrs. Clinton’s claim — backed up by the Obama administration’s security and spy agencies — that the hacks were orchestrated by Russia.
“Hillary, you have no idea,” Mr. Trump said. “I doubt it.”
On immigration, Mrs. Clinton accused Mr. Trump of hiring unauthorized workers for his own businesses and said he “choked” in his meeting with the Mexican president over building a border wall.
Ripping the scab off one of the touchiest issues of the past decade, Mrs. Clinton said Mr. Trump went to Mexico City to try to get that government to pay for his wall, but failed to win any concessions.
He didn’t back down from his own immigration plans, including adding thousands more deportation agents, but said his focus will be on kicking out the “bad hombres” that are living here.
Once that is done, he said he would consider what to do with the remaining illegal immigrants living in the United States.
Left off the stage Wednesday, as in the previous debates, were Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, neither of whom has performed well enough in polls to be part of the debates based on the threshold set by the commission that runs the affairs.
The latest Real Clear Politics average of all polls shows Mrs. Clinton with 45.3 percent support nationally, Mr. Trump with 39.1 percent, Mr. Johnson with 6.5 percent and Ms. Stein with 2.5 percent.
Democrats, increasingly confident of Mrs. Clinton’s victory, have begun to shift resources into congressional races down the ballot, hoping to deliver majorities in both the House and Senate to give Mrs. Clinton a chance to pursue her agenda without a Republican opposition able to block her.
Mr. Trump’s team insists he hasn’t given up, and he has tried to rally supporters by telling them not to believe the polls — and warning that the election is “rigged.” That has sparked a fierce debate about the extent of voter fraud.
“I’d invite Mr. Trump to stop whining and go make his case to get votes,” President Obama said at a White House news conference this week. “I have never seen in my lifetime, or in modern political history, any presidential candidate trying to discredit the elections and the election process before votes have even taken place. It’s unprecedented. It happens to be based on no facts.”
Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump have been firing gibes at each other for years, but the acrimony has worsened in the final months of the election season.
Mr. Trump even brought Mr. Obama’s half-brother, Malik, to Wednesday’s debate. The White House downplayed the move.
“I have to admit I really don’t know exactly what the intent is of this invitation, other than probably to get you guys to ask me about it,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “But even then, I’m not really sure what goal that accomplishes.”
Mr. Trump also invited Patricia Smith, the mother of the late Sean Smith, one of four Americans killed in the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, to the Las Vegas forum. The Republican has made the Benghazi attack a central point in his attacks on Mrs. Clinton’s record as secretary of state, arguing that she failed to do enough to secure the U.S. diplomatic post in the Libyan city and dissembled about the attack afterward.
In the previous debate, Mr. Trump hosted several women who had accused former President Bill Clinton of rape or sexual assault. Mr. Trump was trying to fend off accusations that he himself had engaged in unwanted advances. He boasted about such behavior in a leaked tape of a 2005 conversation with an entertainment journalist.
On stage at that debate, Mr. Trump said he was embarrassed by his remarks but that they were only words and he never engaged in that kind of behavior.
Mrs. Clinton entered the final debate with her own set of problems. The recent WikiLeaks hack of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s private email account has underscored already deep doubts about Mrs. Clinton’s honesty and trustworthiness.
The messages have, among other things, shown Clinton campaign officials mocking Catholics, Southerners and other groups, reinforcing the infamous “basket of deplorables” comment Mrs. Clinton made last month in describing Trump supporters. The emails also revealed that Mrs. Clinton made political calculations on everything from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a trade deal she once backed but now says she opposes — to how much “outrage” to show at congressional hearings on the Benghazi attack.
The emails also contained transcripts of paid speeches Mrs. Clinton made to top banks such as Goldman Sachs after she left the State Department. In those speeches, Mrs. Clinton called for “open borders” in North America and acknowledged that she had a “public and a private” position on Wall Street.