Hillary's hopes now dangling by a thread as decency lies dead in dust
I've had two uninvited guests at my dinner table for the longest time. Each evening the man has made us squirm, grimace and spit out our food in exasperation. And each night the woman has made us sigh, roll our eyes and argue.
The kids have mimicked them mercilessly, even banished them from the table, but they've kept coming back. It's hard to believe that in a few days one of them will be gone. But which one?
This weekend Donald Trump is closer to the US presidency than at any time since he announced his candidacy to a disbelieving, sniggering world. The brash billionaire and former reality TV star can almost taste the air in the Oval Office.
Hillary Clinton's hopes dangle by a thread. Having led the race for almost two years, the Democrat has in the final week suffered a potentially catastrophic collapse. For Hillary, this must feel like a bad dream, in which she's drowning while countless bystanders look on in horror.
The polls are impossible to read. In the crucial swing states, they are see-sawing back and forth. Polls tell us nothing when a candidate is up or down a point or two. The race is now firmly inside the margin of error. It's simply too close to call.
From the start, this campaign has been like no other.
Donald Trump appeared to burst out of the blue. Few were aware that the tycoon had been mulling a political run as far back as 1988. I saw Trump arrive at the 2004 Washington Correspondents' Dinner, where he was feted and swooned over by political types. When he announced his presidential bid, Trump had already imagined the headline 'America's Top Real Estate Guy Acquires Ultimate Washington Address'. He had already heard the crowd's approving roar and loved it.
Like any savvy businessman, Trump had a target market. He identified America's angry, white men, tens of millions of ready-made voters, who were smarting from the loss of well-paid manufacturing jobs and the constant influx of immigrants. "I love the poorly educated," Trump declared early on, drawing out the dispossessed who believe that political correctness and elitist politics have wrecked their homeland.
Unlike Trump, Clinton was a veteran of political campaigns. She practically ran her husband's 1994 and 1998 White House campaigns. In 2002, Clinton launched her own successful bid to become a New York senator, but then lost her first presidential primary to Barack Obama in 2008. Her hopes are pinned on Obama's coalition of African Americans, Hispanics and women.
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Clinton's and Trump's strategies could not have been more different. Hillary emerged out of the traps with a traditional fundraising campaign, a model CV and lots of policy chops. Trump, who claimed to be funding himself, launched immediately into a series of unprecedented attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, the disabled, women and anyone else who came across his radar.
As the wider world recoiled in horror, back home Trump heard the first roar of approval, and he loved it. He vowed to "build a wall!" and "make America great again!" His messiah-like tone and inflammatory rhetoric blew away Jeb Bush, then crushed 'Lying Ted' and 'Little Marco' to win the Republican nomination.
Hillary started out with a 50-point advantage over her nearest rival but was almost felled by Bernie Sanders. The 75-year-old Vermont senator made young liberal Americans swoon when he promised free education and free coffee. We're not supposed to ask how, but Clinton and the Democratic National Committee dispatched Sanders and Hillary marched on.
Bill Clinton was the first to recognise that a Hillary versus Donald match-up would be messy. Bill knew 'The Donald', had attended his wedding and played golf on his courses. The former president saw that Trump had stirred up something in America that would not be easily quieted. But nobody foresaw the carnage that lay ahead.
Trump has torn away the last shreds of decency from American public discourse. The candidate has made it alright to hate, to fat-shame, to lie, and to brag about assaulting women. He has made it normal for his supporters - even kids - to yell "Lock her up!" Trump has embarrassed much of America and further blackened its image abroad.
Clinton, for all her experience and meticulous preparation, hasn't done much better. She too has used insulting language, calling half of Trump's supporters "a basket of deplorables". She has been less than truthful about the secret email server in her basement. Worst of all, Clinton has run this entire race knowing full well that, if elected, her presidency may be hobbled by years of investigations.
Shall I go on? Trump has lobbed a grenade into the heart of the Republican Party, but that may be no bad thing as the GOP is in need of a modernising overhaul. He's also exposed America's Christian right. This once-feared constituency has clung miserably to Trump, even as he behaved and spoke as no Christian should ever do.
To his credit, Trump has thrown America's deep divide into sharp relief. The hard reality of this coming week is that - no matter who wins - serious divisions will remain. Obama couldn't bridge the divide. So how will an unpopular Clinton or a bragging Trump hope to make any headway?
If Clinton prevails, at least the glass ceiling will have been broken; and women everywhere can count that as a victory. If Trump reaches the magic 270 electoral votes needed, he will have successfully blasted another gaping hole in establishment politics. Barring a recount or a tied election, we may soon be able to resume normal dinner-time conversations. At our house we'll miss our uninvited guests, Hillary and Donald. But regardless of what Tuesday brings, I doubt we've seen the last of them.
Carole Coleman is a former RTÉ Washington correspondent