When I said a few weeks ago that those who claimed Hillary Clinton had the election sewn up were standing on rhetorical quicksand, I didn’t expect to be proven right this quickly.

Indeed, National Public Radio commentator Cokie Roberts this week floated a story about how top Democrats are wondering who could replace her if she has to drop out. Admittedly, that determination has yet to be made (probably). But the thought is out there.

And some of the newest polls show Donald Trump pulling even or marginally ahead both nationally and in major swing states.

This is not to say Trump is now a shoo-in himself, merely that Clinton’s questionable health issues (not to mention her questionable legal and moral ones) have yielded a highly predictable tightening of the race.

But Trump still has problems, too. He has toned down his rhetoric and given some excellent policy speeches on topics such as crime, immigration, foreign policy, school choice and taxation (so good, in fact, that they were clearly written by others – but at least he accepted them).

However, he still praises Vladimir Putin, a cold-hearted despot who considers America his chief international rival, and he continues to address Islamic terrorism as though a wave of the hand could halt it.

The news this week was full of stories about Clinton’s knee-buckling collapse after leaving a 9/11 memorial Sunday (the New York Post kept its front-page tabloid cred firmly intact by calling her “Illary” in approximately 1,000-point type).

The Hill, an online publication covering Washington politics, quoted Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications, as saying that on a 1 to 10 scale, with 10 being the most damaging, the video footage of her rated “a 15.”

Berkovitz added: “No matter what you say and no matter how you say it, everyone sees the presidential nominee basically collapsing, almost on the street. When you are saying, ‘I want to be commander in chief and I have the toughness and the strength to lead America during trying times,’ well, you don’t want to see that person being carried into a van.”

Still, the telling policy story of the weekend was Clinton’s gratuitous description of tens of millions of Americans who support Trump as “a basket of deplorables” at a big-dollar LGBT fundraiser.

That includes “the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it,” who she says make up “half of Trump’s supporters.”

Although she later said she “didn’t mean half” (only 49 percent, perhaps?), the internet quickly became flooded with offers for T-shirts, hats, bumper stickers and other paraphernalia saying “I’m a Deplorable for Trump!”

That’s cute, but the real issue is that for a brief moment the Democrats’ standard-bearer let the mask slip and progressives’ actual contempt for a huge number of Americans came through.

It recalls President Obama’s 2008 remark that rural Democrats who opposed him in the primaries “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Thus, the party that loudly proclaims its “tolerance” contains at its heart a fetid swamp of disdain for those who dare to disagree with its “enlightened” views.

As syndicated columnist William Murchison put it on Sept. 13, “A few moderates – I haven’t heard of any conservatives lately – remain in Democratic ranks, but not enough to tame the party’s general animus against local rights, capitalism, traditional moral norms and foreign policy that recognizes and seeks to counter real, live enemies of democracy and freedom.”

To take the heat off Clinton, Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, found himself under pressure to label Louisiana Klansman David Duke “deplorable.”

Duke is that, to be sure, but as a Trump spokeswoman noted, he wouldn’t even have a platform if the media didn’t provide one, and he hardly represents Trump supporters (although Democrats seem to believe he does – which says much more about them than about Trump).

But Pence, even while emphatically repudiating Duke and his views, saw the intentional trap: Apply Clinton’s terminology to even one bad example and the media’s list will continue forever. Nonetheless, the headlines that said “Pence won’t call Duke ‘deplorable’ ” got their predictable play.

Meanwhile, no journalists were asking Clinton to reject the support she receives from abortion profiteers, anti-Israel advocates for Palestinian terrorists, race hustlers, free-speech-crushing academics and all the other hard-left people and causes she attracts. (Mind you, no one expects such questioning. It is restricted exclusively to conservatives.)

Because of all this, the upcoming debates have morphed into not only critical tests for Trump, but Clinton as well.

And now the polls really start being important – culminating, of course, with the one that matters most, on Nov. 8.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:

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