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When the moderator in the first presidential debate asked Donald Trump about police shootings of black men and the protests these have provoked, the Republican candidate flipped the script. He responded with a core message of his campaign – and a core concern of many white, conservative American voters. Here's Mr. Trump's answer to, "How do you heal the (racial) divide?":

"First of all, Secretary Clinton doesn't want to use a couple of words: And that's law and order. And we need law and order. If we don't have it, we're not going to have a country. And when I look at what's going on in Charlotte, a city I love, a city where I have investments, when I look at what's going on throughout various parts of our country, whether it's – I can just keep naming 'em all day long. We need law and order in our country."

Related: 'God help us': The many ways Republican stalwarts word their anti-Trump positions

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Related: Will efforts to fact check Trump's claims sway voters?

Read more: Clinton, Trump clash in first presidential debate: What you missed, and what happens next

Mr. Trump has spent months playing to the idea that America is stalked by crime and social chaos. Black Lives Matter and much of the media may be focused on the police shootings that spark protests, but his supporters are primarily worried about the protests themselves. His chance for victory depends on persuading a relatively small number of undecided voters, across fewer than a dozen swing states, to buy into the idea that the nation's social order is under threat.

He needs more Americans to become more fearful. And events beyond any candidate's control could conspire to do just that.

How can Mr. Trump win? Imagine the following hypothetical timeline:

Sept. 26: Before the first presidential debate, polls showed Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton neck and neck. She is slightly ahead in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Colorado and Virginia. Tipping even one of these states into Mr. Trump's camp could send him to the White House.

Sept. 30: Police in Pittsburgh shoot and kill a young black man. A peaceful protest is held that evening, but after midnight it degenerates into violence. Over the following days, there are protest marches in several American cities, rioting in Pittsburgh and continuing violence in Charlotte, N.C.

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Oct. 9: It's Sunday, and that means football. Every NFL game features multiple players sitting, kneeling or raising their fists during the national anthem. In Indianapolis, fans booing the protesting players get into fights with those cheering them. Footage of all of the above is endlessly replayed on TV and social media.

Oct. 10: A baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates tweets that protesters should "love America or be deported." The season is already over, but his team says it will suspend him for the first game next year. Fox News makes this their leading story for the next 48 hours, asking why those who attack America are being coddled, while America's defenders are muzzled.

Oct. 14: A black man is shot by police in Norfolk, Va. Police say the man was armed; the video is unclear.

Oct. 15: What began as a peaceful protest in Norfolk turns into a night of violence. An Associated Press cameraman captures an image of an injured white officer, his face bloody and his eyes closed, being carried to safety by two fellow officers. The photo quickly becomes an iconic conservative meme, and the centrepiece of a new Trump ad: "This is Obama and Hillary's America."

Oct. 16: Another Sunday of football protests, which now spread to college football. Polls show Mr. Trump leading in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

Oct. 19: A man of Middle Eastern ancestry detonates a suicide bomb in a shopping mall in suburban Detroit. He leaves behind a lengthy video mocking America and pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. Within 24 hours, nearly every American has seen it.

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Oct. 21: A black man is shot by police in Washington, D.C. The cycle of protests, riots and television footage of burning cars begins once again, this time in the national capital.

Oct. 23: Aleppo falls to the combined forces of Bashar al-Assad and Russia. Mr. Trump puts out a new ad: "Under Obama and Hillary, America is losing – losing overseas and losing at home."

Oct. 30: Protests continue in several cities and on multiple football fields. During the playing of the national anthem at one NFL game, a black linebacker with his fist in the air holds up a sign reading, "Save America, Stop Trump." He is backed by many players on Twitter, nearly all black. Privately, the Trump campaign is ecstatic.

Nov. 1: The pundits say Ms. Clinton has handily won every debate. But the latest polls show Mr. Trump in the lead nationally, with the swing states of Colorado and Michigan having moved into his camp.

The election is only one week away, and he is poised to become America's 45th president.

Eds note: An earlier version contained an error in the location of the NFL game.

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