Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump probably thought candid remarks made to a priest in private would remain just that. But Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, proved to be a rather indiscreet confessor.

Within hours of speaking to the two presidential nominees back stage at a charity dinner the archbishop let slip one of the most shocking stories of the campaign - that the bitter rivals had been "nice" to each other, and even said a prayer together.

"There were some very touching moments," Cardinal Dolan said. "When we were going in I said 'Can we pray together?' as we were waiting to be announced.

"After the little prayer Mr Trump turned to Mrs Clinton and said 'You know, you are one tough and talented woman'. Then he said 'This has been a good experience, this whole campaign, as tough as it's been'.

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Mrs Clinton responded: "Donald, whatever happens, we need to work together afterwards.""

Cardinal Dolan said: "I was very moved by this obvious attempt on behalf of both of them to be courteous, to get along, to say nice things privately to one another."

The pair even shook hands, which they had refused to do at the final presidential debate earlier this week.

The unusual thaw in relations, during the ugliest presidential campaign in living memory, happened at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York, which raised $6 million for Catholic charities supporting children.

It is traditionally the last time the two nominees share a stage before the election, each making a humorous speech.

During the public dinner hostilities were resumed and Cardinal Dolan called his seat between the two candidates the "iciest place on Earth".

Several of Mr Trump's jokes turned sour and he was booed. He accused Mrs Clinton of being "so corrupt she got kicked off the Watergate Commission" and of "pretending not to hate Catholics."

Mrs Clinton said: "Donald looks at the Statue of Liberty and sees a '4'. Maybe a '5' if she changes her hair."

Mr Trump did get perhaps the biggest laugh of the night for a joke about his own wife Melania.

At the Republican National Convention in July she gave an address which included a passage a speechwriter had taken from a previous Michelle Obama speech, which led to a plagiarism row.

Mr Trump said: "Michelle Obama gives a speech and everyone loves it. My wife Melania gives the exact same speech and people get on her case. I just don't get it! Oh I'm in trouble when I go home tonight."

The encounter came as Sir Richard Branson joined the chorus of condemnation against Mr Trump, revealing details of a "bizarre and disturbing" lunch meeting some years ago.

Sir Richard said the billionaire was angry about five people who had refused to help him after a corporate bankruptcy, and vowed repeatedly to "spend the rest of his life destroying them".

The Virgin founder said: "What concerns me most is his vindictive streak. It could be so dangerous if he got into the White House." Polls showed Mrs Clinton a hot favourite to win.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, predicted she would get more than 350 votes in the presidential electoral college. A candidate needs only 270 to win.

Mrs Clinton launched a new television advertisement featuring the father of Captain Humayun Khan, a Muslim-American soldier who died in Iraq.

Mr Trump cut short a television interview in Ohio after a journalist asked him about being branded a racist.

"I am the least racist person you will ever meet," he said, before walking off.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Photo / AP
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Photo / AP