Trump on Defensive in First Debate

Trump on Defensive in First Debate
Joe Raedle/Pool via AP
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HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- In the fight of the century, there were no knockouts or blowouts. The bright lights of a Hofstra University auditorium revealed little new about the man and woman vying to become commander-in-chief. Instead, American viewers, some of whom will start casting their votes this week, saw familiar faces: Donald Trump, the shoot-from-the-hip candidate promising change, and Hillary Clinton, the prepared politician.

In the first half hour of the 90-minute forum, the Republican nominee outperformed the extraordinarily low expectations set for him in his first one-on-one debate. But after putting Clinton on her heels over trade and the staid ways of Washington, Trump began to take his opponent’s bait. Over the course of the final hour, Trump was consistently on the defensive, so focused on dismissing charges of “birtherism,” his refusal to release his tax returns, and racism that he failed to land basic hits against Clinton or promote his own vision.

If Trump’s goal was to speak to those already inclined to his message, and to show politics hasn’t changed him, he succeeded. His intentions to portray Clinton as a creature of an ineffective Washington were also clear. 

And if Clinton aimed to drive home doubts about her opponent’s presidential temperament on a national stage, and get him off kilter, she and her campaign left satisfied. “You have to judge us -- who can shoulder the immense, awesome responsibilities of the presidency,” Clinton told voters at the outset of the debate.

Polling over the next few days will reveal how voters, particularly those who haven’t made up their minds about whether or for whom they will cast their ballots, processed the debate. Immediate reactions from focus groups and spot polling showed Clinton the victor.

With polls tightening nationally and in key battleground states before the debate, Clinton hopes her performance energized her base and attracted those inclined to third party candidates. “The race is not going to change overnight,” said David Plouffe, President Obama’s former campaign manager and a Clinton surrogate. “I think she definitely improved her ability to convert undecided voters, and I think she probably did create a lot of energy among her base, which is really important.”

Clinton took a victory lap at a debate watch party in Westbury, N.Y., Monday night. The Democratic nominee will try to seize any new momentum from her performance with stops in Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Iowa this week. Trump has a packed campaign schedule this week too, with stops in Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Michigan.

Trump skipped a planned visit to the Nassau County GOP debate party in New York, but visited the spin room to talk with reporters -- a rare move for a presidential candidate, but something Trump did often in the primary debates.

The Republican nominee and his campaign took particular pride in a moment at the end of the debate, when Trump said he restrained himself from bringing up former President Clinton’s affairs.

Trump “showed tremendous restraint. I don't know that I would have, in the face of Clinton predictably bringing up a couple of things Trump has said over 25-30 years about a woman here and a woman there,” said Trump Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway.

The moment of self-described restraint came after Trump was asked about his past criticism of Clinton not having a “presidential look.” The Democratic nominee, he said, lacks the “stamina” to be president. Clinton then invoked past statements Trump has made about women.

The response seemed to frustrate the Republican nominee, leaving him to defend himself by pointing out that Clinton is spending millions of dollars in advertising against him.

Perhaps more beneficial to Clinton’s cause, however, was Trump’s responses to questions about why he perpetuated controversy about President Obama’s birthplace for years, and why he would not release his tax returns.

As he has before, Trump falsely accused the Clinton campaign of initiating the birther movement. Earlier this month, Trump agreed that the president was, in fact, born in the United States. When asked Monday night what changed his mind, he said he did so to put the matter behind him and move on to other issues, including the economy and terrorism. But when pressed as to why he continued to promote the birther theory years after Obama released his birth certificate, Trump took credit. “I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate. And I think I did a good job,” he said. Asked during a segment of the debate on racial divides what he would say to African-Americans about the birther issue, Trump quickly responded, “I say nothing, because I was able to get him to produce it.” 

Clinton seized the moment to remind the audience that Trump was sued in the 1970s by the Justice Department for housing discrimination. “He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior,” she said.

Trump said he settled the suit “with zero admission of guilt” and praised himself for opening his Mar-A-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., to everyone. “No discrimination against African-Americans, against Muslims, against anybody,” he said. “And it's a tremendously successful club.”

Trump also found himself on the defensive over his refusal to release his tax returns, a decades-old presidential protocol. Clinton asked what Trump had to hide, suggesting his income, charitable donations, or paid taxes are less than he implies. “It must be something really important, even terrible, that he's trying to hide,” she said.

Trump said he would release his tax returns against his lawyer's advice if Clinton produced the several thousand emails missing from her private server. When pressed about the emails, Clinton acknowledged it was a mistake to use private email.

Trump shot back: “That was more than a mistake. That was done purposely,” he said. But he declined to press the issue further and instead went back to defending himself on his taxes and business dealings.

Trump took opportunities to hit Clinton on unrest in the Middle East and insecurity at home and abroad. But then he got into a back-and-forth with the moderator on whether he supported the Iraq War. Trump continued to insist he opposed the war before it began, even though there isn’t evidence to support his claim.

By the end of the debate, it was clear Trump had ventured from the tone and tenor he tried to set for himself at the outset, when he pressed his case for change. Several times over the course of the first half of the night, Trump questioned the effect of Clinton’s decades in politics. Clinton’s description of Trump’s economic plan as “Trumped-up, trickle down” fell flat, and she found herself on the defensive on trade deals.

I have a feeling by the end of this debate I’m going to be blamed for everything,” Clinton said.

Trump responded: “Why not?”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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