As Donald Trump flailed away at questions on policy issues, his business career and his personal views, Hillary Clinton provided the bottom line for the first of their three scheduled televised debates.
It came when Trump, alluding to her decisions to curb campaigning to prepare for the high-profile confrontation while he visited Detroit and Philadelphia, said: “I’ve been all over the place. You decided to stay home, and that’s OK.”
“I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate,” Clinton interjected. “And, yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.”
Her comment, applauded by the bipartisan audience of dignitaries at Long Island’s Hofstra University, summed up an evening in which the Democratic nominee seemed far better prepared than Trump, whose more casual approach left him often unfocused, still running his primary campaign of lashing out at his opponents.
A post-debate CNN poll of debate watchers showed Clinton the winner, and we’ll soon know if she slowed or reversed recent Trump gains that have significantly narrowed the presidential race. While debates always enable the candidates to reinforce their bases, the key this time may be how it affected the unusually large number of voters who are undecided or considering minor party candidates.
A pre-debate poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal showed especial interest within traditionally Democratic groups where Clinton has so far shown less support than President Barack Obama achieved four years ago — Hispanics, African-Americans and voters under 35.
Clinton’s basic job was to make Americans more comfortable with her and with the long experience she would bring to the Oval Office. She did it by detailing how she would handle specific problems, challenging his inaccurate claims and displaying the calm, confident manner of someone clearly in command of the situation.
By contrast, Trump repeatedly interrupted Clinton and even moderator Lester Holt of NBC News, alternating between avoiding specific answers and veering off into non sequiturs. He looked uncomfortable at times, and his volatility and defensiveness seemed to undercut his need to counter concerns about his temperament.
At one point, Holt asked why Trump felt his judgment was better than Clinton’s, and the Republican nominee drew laughter by proclaiming he has “a much better temperament than she has,” adding, “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament.
“I have a winning temperament,” he said, “I know how to win.”
But she cited an incident in which, after some Iranian sailors taunted some Americans, he said he would “blow them out of the water.”
“That’s not good judgment,” she said. “That is not the right temperament to be commander-in-chief.”
Trump began strongly, pressing his principal argument that politicians like Clinton had failed to solve America’s problems and that only a dramatic change could “make America great again.” He renewed his denunciation of trade deals, vowing to force companies to bring jobs back to the United States, and said his tax cuts would be “a job creator like we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan.”
But he failed to answer Holt’s question about how he would force American companies to come home, and, when asked to defend his tax cuts for the wealthy, attacked Clinton instead.
“I have a feeling that, by the end of this evening, I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened,” she replied. “Why not?” Trump responded.
When Trump again blamed his refusal to release his tax returns on the fact he is being audited, she suggested he might be trying to hide whether he is as rich as he claims, as charitable as he claims or maybe he “paid nothing in federal taxes,” noting his only public tax returns show he paid no federal income taxes.
“That makes me smart,” Trump said, passing up a chance to say he had, in fact, paid federal income taxes.
When Holt asked about his statement that Clinton lacks “the stamina” to be president, she watched with a bemused look as he reiterated: “To be president of this country, you need tremendous stamina … and I don’t believe Hillary has the stamina.”
“As soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents … or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina,” the former secretary of state replied.
“Hillary has experience, but it’s bad experience,” he said.
She responded by listing his comments denigrating women, prompting a weak Trump response about how one of his targets, Rosie O’Donnell, has “been very vicious to me.”
But more votes are likely to be gained by attacking sexism than by criticizing Rosie O’Donnell.
— Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.