Clinton Homes In on Trump's Debate Stumbles

Clinton Homes In on Trump's Debate Stumbles
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The day after a rehearsed and prepared presidential candidate matched wits with a decidedly improvisational opponent during their first televised debate, Hillary Clinton claimed to have won the night, while Donald Trump insisted he was on a path to win the White House.

“One down. Two to go!” Clinton told a cheering audience in North Carolina on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Trump told supporters at a rally in Melbourne, Fla.: "Almost every single poll had us winning the debate against crooked Hillary Clinton — big league."

As many have noted, the online polls Trump cited are unscientific.

The Trump campaign later issued a news release touting the candidate's haul of post-debate donations. “As a result of Donald Trump’s huge debate win last night, we had a massive fundraising day bringing in more than $18 million. "

But Clinton, speaking to a community college crowd in Raleigh, described Monday's 98-minute debate with an air of triumph. Her opponent’s statements, she said, chuckling, created “a lot of work for fact-checkers.”

Whether it was Clinton or Trump who sailed out of the debate as measured by polls and surveys in key swing states won’t be known for the better part of a week. It is possible that both candidates pleased their admirers without moving the needle very much among voters who are undecided, say they are unlikely to vote, or are contemplating a third party alternative.

But just as she intensively prepared for her face-off against Trump at Hofstra University, Clinton and her campaign followed a discernible strategy Tuesday: They endeavored to transform any new enthusiasm into voter registration and early voting, which has begun in some states. And they are eager to keep Trump on defense.

In that, they got some help from their opponent. The post-debate messaging from Trump and his allies lacked a clear playbook or coordination. It was as uneven Tuesday as the Republican nominee’s debate performance Monday night. The GOP nominee sought to shake off his defensive and heavily fact-checked debate detours by trumpeting victory. 

But Clinton’s team bore down on Trump’s stumbles, reversals and misstatements, unleashing a barrage of surrogates, emails, and social media messages, along with a photograph of a celebratory Clinton with Bill and Chelsea Clinton backstage after Monday night’s joust.

The coordinated communications showcased a Democratic nominee who believes a majority of more than 81 million TV viewers — as measured by Nielsen in an initial record-setting batch of debate ratings — took a look at a Republican nominee who was thin-skinned, and thin when it came to knowledge and experience to be president. 

During her North Carolina rally and in her team’s swiftly produced campaign Web ads, Clinton assailed her rival in a bid to woo women, younger voters, middle-class families and college-educated moderates, whose support for Trump has been weak, according to polls.

“He actually bragged about gaming the system to get out of paying his fair share of taxes,” Clinton said, seizing on one of several responses by Trump during the debate.

Her focus on Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, which presidential candidates have done for 40 years, is aimed at his secrecy, but also at what she has begun to describe has his refusal to contribute to some of the government functions he embraces as a candidate.

“He probably hasn’t paid a penny to support our troops, or our vets, or our schools, or our health care systems,” she added, noting that Trump described as “smart” his businessman’s approach to paying as little as possible to the IRS.

“If not paying his taxes makes him smart, what does that make the rest of us?” Clinton asked.

Trump also conceded, after a jab from Clinton Monday, that in 2007-08 he greeted the real estate foreclosure crisis as a “business” opportunity, she reminded her supporters. What kind of person does that, Clinton asked North Carolinians, echoing a question often posed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

“One who should never be president, is the answer to that question,” Clinton said.

Her campaign also tried to undercut Trump’s support among Hispanics and young women by focusing on the New Yorker’s public rebukes of a former Miss Universe dating to the late 1990s -- an episode Trump boasted about at the time, and which Clinton injected into the closing minutes of the debate.

Trump initially responded to his rival by seeming to deny he had publicly rebuked Alicia Machado, the former beauty queen. She has said Trump called her “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping” in response to her weight gain during the year she wore the crown in 1996. 

In a Web ad deployed by the Clinton campaign Tuesday, and again during a conference call with reporters, Machado described her opposition to Trump, who had publicly demeaned her, she complained; contributed to her eating disorder; and withheld compensation she believed she earned as Miss Universe.

While defending himself Tuesday, Trump confirmed parts of the tale. Machado’s weight had been a “real problem,” he told “Fox & Friends” during an interview. “She gained a massive amount of weight.”

One Trump adviser said Trump had been responding to a question. “He has the right to defend himself against slander from the left,” the adviser reasoned. 

The debate’s moderator, NBC News anchor Lester Holt, evolved overnight into a new source of angst for Trump. 

Immediately following the Hofstra event, the GOP nominee said Holt “did a great job.” But some Trump allies offered a different evaluation: Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said Holt should be “ashamed.” 

“If I were Donald Trump I wouldn’t participate in another debate unless I was promised that the journalist would act like a journalist and not an incorrect, ignorant fact-checker,” Giuliani told reporters. 

Trump echoed his friend’s reaction, telling Fox News that Holt “gave me very unfair questions at the end — the last three, four questions.”

Trump’s camp questioned why controversies tied to Clinton — including reports that Clinton Foundation donors enjoyed special access to the State Department during the former secretary’s tenure, as well as what the FBI called Clinton’s “extremely careless” use of her private email server — were not among Holt’s debate topics.

Trump explained why he had not raised the subjects with Clinton when he had the chance. “I really eased up because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” he told Fox News. 

Trump also hit the media, suggesting critiques that Clinton won Monday's debate are bogus. "Media, corrupt as you can get. ... The single weapon she’s got is the media. Without the media, she wouldn’t have a chance."

He also wasn't letting go of the fact-checks on his Iraq War position: "Does everybody believe me? I was against going to war in Iraq. And it’s so well documented."

For the next debate on Oct. 9, Trump hinted he might formulate a more aggressive approach toward Clinton. “I may hit her harder in certain ways,” he said. 

Whether Trump expects to prepare more intensively for the face-off with Clinton in St. Louis, Mo., remained unclear. The format will place the two candidates among undecided voters in a town-hall format with two moderators. The questions are supposed to be posed by voters in the audience, intended to create a less combative atmosphere.

As Trump returns to the campaign trail this week with events in key battleground states, he renewed critiques of Clinton as a way to defend his views and undercut any media momentum she gained in the wake of their first debate.

“She’s trying to lie her way to the presidency,” Trump’s adviser said. “It’s not going to work.”

Trump said he is a change agent much needed in Washington, a theme he favored during Monday’s debate when he cast Clinton as a tired politician with a long record and scarce achievements. 

“Crooked Hillary says she is going to do so many things,” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. “Why hasn't she done them in her last 30 years?”

Trump will campaign Wednesday in Iowa and Wisconsin. Later this week, he will headline events in New Hampshire and Michigan, two states where he is within striking distance of Clinton, according to recent polls. 

The former secretary of state on Wednesday will target millennial voters with help from Sen. Bernie Sanders, her primary opponent, during an event in the Granite State. Clinton will be in Iowa on Thursday, and will campaign in two Florida counties on Friday.

On Oct. 4, vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine will debate at Virginia’s Longwood University.

Caitlin Huey-Burns contributed to this report. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

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