US press: pick of the papers

1. Mitt Romney camp's latest gaffe may be etched in history (Washington Post)

Etch a Sketch? Actually, it appeared more like Romney was playing Chutes and Ladders: He just landed on Space 87 and slid all the way back to 24, says Dana Milbank.

2. Politics, odors and soap (New York Times)

This year's Republican primaries have been a kaleidoscope of loyalty, authority and sanctity issues -- such as whether church-affiliated institutions can refuse to cover birth control in health insurance policies -- and that's perhaps why people like me have found the primaries so crazy, says Nicholas Kristof.

3. George Osborne's Budget (Wall Street Journal)

The worst part of Mr. Osborne's budget is that it keeps government in the dubious business of picking winners and losers, says this editorial.

4. The new globalist is homesick (New York Times)

The persistence of homesickness points to the limitations of the cosmopolitan philosophy that undergirds so much of our market and society, writes Susan Matt.

5. Romney's challenge to sway evangelical voters (Washington Post)

Outside of Mormon strongholds, voters most concerned about a candidate's religious views are rejecting Romney, writes E.J. Dionne Jr.

6. Don't close the GOP show (LA Times)

We in the mainstream media are just hoping to see the gaudy spectacle of this primary campaign continue as long as possible, says Doyle McManus.

7. Pope is coming -- time to round up dissidents (Star Tribune)

The church's coldness toward peaceful pro- democracy activists isn't all that surprising. Since 2009, Cardinal Ortega has become a de facto partner of Raul Castro, meeting with him regularly and encouraging his limited reforms, says this editorial.

8. Of super PACs and corruption (Politico)

It's time to rethink the whole relationship between independent spending and corruption, writes Richard Hasen.

9. Springsteen captures the state of America (Chicago Tribune)

One of the elder statesmen of American popular music delivers what might fairly be called a State of the Union address, writes Leonard Pitts.

10. Enough! Afghan war just isn't working (USA Today)

Bob Beckel says Afghanistan has been a tribal nation for centuries, and it will not become "democratic" soon, if ever, and Cal Thomas writes that the recent massacre of 16 Afghan civilians doesn't help us win the "hearts and minds" of the people we are trying to protect.

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US election 2016: Trump threatens to deny democracy

When asked if he would accept the result of the election, the reality TV star said that he would have to “keep you in suspense.”

During this insane bad-acid-trip of an election campaign I have overused the phrase “let that sink in.”

There have been at least two dozen moments in the last 18 months which I have felt warranted a moment of horrified contemplation, a moment to sit and internalise the insanity of what is happening. That time a candidate for president brought up his penis size in a primary election debate, for one.

But there was a debate last night, and one of the protagonists threatened to undermine democracy in the United States of America, which throws the rest of this bizarre campaign into stark relief.

It was the third and final clash between an experienced if arguably politically problematic former senator and secretary of state – Hillary Clinton –  and a reality TV star accused of a growing number of sexual assaults – Donald Trump – but the tone and content of the debate mattered less than what the latter said at one key, illuminating moment.

That statement was this: asked if he would accept the result of the election, Donald Trump said that he was going to “look at it at the time,” and that he would have to “keep you in suspense.”

If your jaw just hit the floor, you have responded correctly. The candidate for the party of Lincoln, the party of Reagan, the party of Teddy Roosevelt, declined to uphold the most fundamental keystone of American democracy, which is to say, the peaceful transition of power.

Let that sink in. Let it sit; let it brew like hot, stewed tea.

This election has been historic in a vast number of ways, most important of which is that it will be, if current polling is to be believed, the election which will bring America's first female president to the White House, almost a century after women's suffrage was enabled by the 19th amendment to the constitution in August 1920.

If the last near-century for women in America has been a journey inexorably towards this moment, slowly chipping away at glass ceiling after glass ceiling, like the progression of some hellish video game, then Donald Trump is as fitting a final boss as it could be possible to imagine.

For Trump, this third and final debate in Las Vegas was do-or-die. His challenge was near-insurmountable for even a person with a first-class intellect, which Trump does not appear to possess, to face. First, he needed to speak in such a way as to defend his indefensible outbursts about women, not to mention the increasing number of allegations of actual sexual assault, claims backstopped by his own on-tape boasting of theoretical sexual assault released last month.

This, he failed to do, alleging instead that the growing number of sexual assault allegations against him are being fabricated and orchestrated by Clinton's campaign, which he called “sleazy”, at one point to actual laughs from the debate audience.

But he also needed to reach out to moderates, voters outside his base, voters who are not electrified by dog-whistle racism and lumbering misogyny. He tried to do this, using the Wikileaks dump of emails between Democratic party operators as a weapon. But that weapon is fatally limited, because ultimately not much is in the Wikileaks email dumps, really, except some slightly bitchy snark of the kind anyone on earth's emails would have and one hell of a recipe for risotto.

In the debate, moderator Chris Wallace admirably held the candidates to a largely more substantive, policy-driven debate than the two previous offerings – a fact made all the more notable considering that he was the only moderator of the three debates to come from Fox News – and predictably Trump floundered in the area of policy, choosing instead to fall back on old favourites like his lean-into-the-mic trick, which he used at one point to mutter “nasty woman” at Clinton like she'd just cut him off in traffic.

Trump was more subdued than the bombastic lummox to which the American media-consuming public have become accustomed, as if his new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway had dropped a couple of Xanax into his glass of water before he went on stage. He even successfully managed to grasp at some actual Republican talking-points – abortion, most notably – like a puppy who has been semi-successfully trained not to make a mess on the carpet.

He also hit his own favourite campaign notes, especially his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - but ultimately his intrinsic Donald Trumpiness couldn't stop itself from blazing through.

Remember the Republican primary debate when Trump refused to say that he would accept the party's nominee if it wasn't him? Well, he did it again: except this time, the pledge he refused to take wasn't an internal party matter; it was two centuries of American democratic tradition chucked out of the window like a spent cigarette. A pledge to potentially ignore the result of an election, given teeth by weeks of paranoiac ramblings about voter fraud and rigged election systems, setting America up for civil unrest and catastrophe, driving wedges into the cracks of a national discourse already strained with unprecedented polarisation and spite.

Let it, for what is hopefully just one final time, sink in.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.