WASHINGTON -- The presidential debates are mercifully over in an election that may long be remembered as a lost opportunity for Republicans to take control of the nation's government for the next four to eight years.
This should have been an election that was all about the dreadful Obama economy, lost jobs, and persistently weak economic growth that's crawling along at little more than 1 percent.
This should have been a relentless, unforgiving, game-changing campaign that turned the election into an historic referendum on the last eight years of an underperforming economy that has hurt tens of millions of Americans.
Instead, the voters nominated Donald Trump, who has been incapable of mounting a campaign focusing like a laser beam on the Democrats' biggest political weakness.
University of Maryland business economist Peter Morici, who has been one of President Obama's severest critics, correctly summed up this administration's failure:
"The current economic recovery has been one of the longest and weakest since World War II. Growth at 2.1 percent has not been enough to resurrect family incomes to pre-recession levels or create enough good-paying jobs."
In the last and blessedly final year of Obama's anemic economic record, the economy has grown weaker, raising fears that we may be headed toward another recession.
To be sure, Trump has made the weak economy one of the issues in his campaign, but his criticisms have for the most part been drowned out or undermined by unending controversies, scandals and inflammatory rhetoric of his own making.
Heading into the final days of the campaign, he was dismissing a taped conversation, in which he bragged about sexually forcing himself on women, as nothing more than "locker room banter"; denying charges from women that he assaulted them; and saying he often got away with such behavior because he was famous and a television "star."
More recently, Trump insists he is a victim of a "global conspiracy" that has "rigged" the election against him in favor of Hillary Clinton.
As Clinton has lengthened her lead in pivotal states, he has raised a new and unprecedented issue in the annals of presidential politics: that if he loses, it will be the result of election fraud.
He has offered no evidence of this paranoid plot, or for his bombastic charges that the election process is rigged. Yet at the end of Wednesday night's rancorous debate, he leveled one of the most incendiary threats of his campaign -- refusing to say whether he would accept the outcome of next month's election.
"I will keep you in suspense," the notoriously litigious real estate mogul said.
Conspiracy theories abound in this election, and Trump is clearly appealing to that part of the electorate that buys into them, hook, line and sinker.
But by raising the specter of voter fraud -- even before the polls open -- he is attempting to undermine public confidence in America's democratic process and the very foundations of self-government.
He's also trying to shift the news media's attention away from his groping scandal, and he effectively did just that in Wednesday's debate. He also made it clear that he disagrees with his vice presidential running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who has said, "We will absolutely accept the results of the election."
Has there been voter fraud in our elections? Of course. The 1960 presidential election immediately comes to mind, when large numbers of dubious Democratic votes were counted in Chicago that swept John F. Kennedy into the White House.
Since then, stringent safeguards have been put in place by both parties, with poll watchers at voting places and during the vote-counting process. There are respected studies that show voter fraud is rare.
Meantime, polls in key battlegrounds show that Hillary Clinton leads in enough states to give her more than the 270 electoral votes she needs to win the presidency.
Clinton is said to hold leads of 4 percentage points or more "among likely voters in states that add up to 304 electoral votes," according to a SurveyMonkey poll of 15 pivotal states conducted by The Washington Post. Trump "has the advantage in states with an estimated electoral vote total of 138."
Of course, as Yogi Berra once said, "It ain't over 'til it's over." Still, things look bleak for the Republicans.
It didn't have to be this way. Trump would be leading in the polls if he had made Obama's failed economy his chief issue in this campaign -- detailing its weaknesses, spelling out how lower tax rates would produce a wave of new job-creating capital investment, and, of course, refraining from childish insults and bombastic behavior. And if he had embraced the House GOP's revenue-neutral tax reforms, which would shut down needless loopholes and corporate welfare.
Meantime, Hillary Clinton's tax-hiking economic agenda will be a disaster for our country. Listen to Morici:
"If Congress permits her to expand Obamacare, impose a $15 minimum wage, finance broader subsidies for child care and college tuition and impose other regulatory burdens, those would likely cook our economic goose," Morici writes.
But Trump is not going to change his rude and vulgar behavior, nor restyle his campaign agenda. Democrats handed the Republicans this election on a silver platter, and it appears that a deeply flawed GOP nominee is about to lose it.