- - Sunday, September 25, 2016

There’s baseball tonight, and politics, too. Politics, like baseball, is a game of inches. A called strike, two inches within the strike zone, a fly ball that clears the left-field fence by three inches. A tag at third base misses by four inches. An inch here and two inches there, and a late-inning rally ruined.

Baseball is the all-American metaphor for politics, and Donald Trump must keep his eye on the ball if he wants to avoid the missed inches and extend his rally. This is no time for a sharp remark about Hillary’s fragile health or a crack about her pants suits that he just can’t resist. He has to watch the ball over the plate.

He must remember that it’s the bottom of the ninth and he’s down a run. The bases are loaded with two out, and an erratic long-ball hitter is up, against a tired pitcher with a sore arm. A hundred million fans are watching.

The Donald must put away the temptation to go for the long ball. He doesn’t have to get the home run. Every runner will be running at the crack of wood on horsehide, and a sharp single to right field will put it away. Even a Texas Leaguer over the second baseman will do.

Tonight’s debate is one of those tense occasions when politics imitates art. Everything rides on a single pitch, and the Donald has the opportunity to win by defeating the bigotry of the low expectations created by a media intoxicated with two parts piety and three parts hysteria. Half the audience, and maybe more than half, will be rooting for him, and all he has to do is show them the presidential side he showed President Enrique Pena in Mexico, the compassionate side he showed with his spontaneous trip to Louisiana in the wake of a devastating flood while President Obama played golf and his protege was trying to cover up her failing health at home.

There’s precedent for the moment. John F. Kennedy is remembered as unblemished icon, but he was the decided underdog when he faced Richard Nixon in the first debate in 1960, regarded as the golden boy of an indulgent rich father out to buy the presidency for him. Few thought him up to being trusted with a finger on the button. His brain had been stuffed with facts and policy data by his Harvard lawyers and professors, but he won the night by looking and sounding (radio was still big then) likable and more mature than anybody thought he was.

Ronald Reagan, trailing in the polls by double digits, took down Jimmy Carter in 1980 with his amiability, his confident smile and good humor. When Mr. Carter nitpicked at the point he was trying to make, the Gipper resisted the temptation to say something sharp and sighed patiently and said, “Mr. President, there you go again!” That remark, and the Gipper’s show of measured maturity destroyed Mr. Carter and Ronald Reagan was never again the amiable dunce of media manufacture.

This can be the night that Hillary Clinton gets the answer to her plaintive question, “Why aren’t I fifty points ahead?” She’s learning at last that nobody likes her, nobody trusts her, and nobody wants to vote for her, but millions will if the media caricature of Donald Trump is the only alternative. If the Donald can show that he’s not that alternative, but someone who looks like a legitimate occupant of the Oval Office, he will win, beginning tonight.

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