Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump waged a fiery battle Monday night when they appeared on stage together — a clash of two famous personalities locked in a dead heat for the presidency. During one of the most highly anticipated debates in modern political history, the candidates drew sharp contrasts on temperament, character and policy and starkly different visions of where they would lead the nation.
By most measures, Clinton had the better night, repeatedly putting the Republican nominee on defense on the issues most likely to damage his White House campaign — his refusal to release his taxes, his past comments on race and his past comments on race and his attitude toward women.
Trump started out strong and made effective points on the economy, trade and jobs that were uncomfortable at times for his rival. He put Clinton in a tight spot as he repeatedly accused her of being in Washington for 30 years and of doing little to improve the economic health of Americans, a line that could resonate in key swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.
But he appeared to fade as the night wore on, failing to effectively press Clinton on her deepest vulnerabilities on her private emails server and long history of ethical questions.
The debate, at Hofstra University on New York’s Long Island, came at a critical point of the campaign: Trump has grabbed momentum in national polls and narrowed the race in some of the most decisive swing states. The debate had the potential for him to build on that momentum with 42 days remaining before Election Day.
First signs positive for Clinton
But the first results indicated that Clinton won. A CNN/ORC poll after the clash showed Clinton had a commanding victory, by 62% to 27%. The poll suggested the debate audience was a bit more Democratic than the public as a whole, about on par with the Democratic tilt in the audience that watched the first debate in 2008 between Barack Obama and John McCain.
In all, 68% of those asked said Clinton had a better understanding of the issues, while 27% said the same of Trump. Asked whether Trump could handle the presidency, 55% said no.
It will be several days, however, until conventional wisdom about the result of the showdown gels and its impact on the campaign becomes evident. Trump appeared to do nothing to shake the strong faith in his campaign among his core supporters, though the Republican nominee may have failed to broaden his coalition among key voting blocks, minorities and women.
The showdown came at a critical point in the race. Another CNN/ORC poll released Monday found Trump edging Clinton 42% to 41% in the crucial battleground state of Colorado among likely voters in a four-way race. In Pennsylvania, another key state, the poll found Clinton in a virtual tie against Trump among likely voters at 45% to 44%.
The former secretary of state is relying on both states to help pave her way to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
Nationally, CNN’s Poll of Polls finds Clinton and Trump neck-and-neck 44%-42%.
Both candidates clearly understood that the central question of Monday’s debate was about who had the right temperament and character to serve as President of the United States. Clinton delivered the best zinger of the night in response to criticism from Trump for staying off the campaign trail recently.
“I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate,” she said. “And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be President. And that is a good thing.”
Clinton also repeatedly brought attention to Trump’s reputation for spreading falsehoods and repeatedly tried to needle him, at one point blasting his “trumped up, trickle down” economics.
Trump, however, said he was much better suited to the burdens of the Oval Office.
“I have a winning temperament, I know how to win. She does not know how to win,” he said.
The billionaire skewered Clinton on her past support for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which she declared the “gold standard” when she was secretary of state but now opposes.
Clinton’s team was clearly delighted with their candidate’s performance, declaring her the clear winner. Trump appeared in the “spin room” as soon as the 90 minute debate was over, telling CNN’s Dana Bash “it went better than I ever thought.” He also told reporters his microphone wasn’t working and questioned whether that was happening on purpose.
Often in presidential debates, the atmospherics and body language are as important to winning over undecided voters as what the candidates say. On that score, Clinton went out of her way to appear unruffled and calm. She often responded to Trump’s attacks with smiles and laughs. She pointedly repeatedly referred to Trump as “Donald” — in an apparent bid to cut him down to size, not using the moniker “Mr. Trump” that he prefers.
Trump, while passionate and engaged, also appeared to play into concerns about his personality. He often spoke loudly over Clinton in a way that could have come across as condescending, apparently falling short of his goal to appear more presidential than his rival.
Monday’s event was Trump’s first ever one-on-one political debate — and he has two more showdowns with Clinton to change the political narrative before the election. There have been several instances of candidates recovering from an underwhelming first debate to recapture momentum and win the presidency in November.
One of the most powerful moments of the debate came when the conversation focused on the so-called birther debate following Trump’s recent acknowledgment that President Barack Obama was born in the US — a fact that has been evident for years. With Trump standing just a few feet from her, Clinton blasted him for perpetuating a “racist lie.”
“He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior,” Clinton said as Trump shook his head.
Trump hit back, noting Clinton’s tough critiques of Obama during their bitter 2008 primary battle.
“You treated him with terrible disrespect and I watch the way you talk now about how lovely everything is … it doesn’t work that way,” he said. “When you try to act holier than thou, it really doesn’t work.”
As the debate ended, Clinton hammered Trump over his treatment of women.
“This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs,” Clinton said.
She accused Trump of calling a Latina contestant in a beauty contest “Miss Piggy” and a housekeeper because of her ethnicity, seemingly throwing Trump off as he twice asked “Where did you find this?”
Clinton repeatedly sought to correct Trump’s statements — going so far as referring viewers to fact checks on her website — as she aimed to portray him as out of touch with the complexities of the American economy.
“I know you live in your own reality,” she told Trump.
Clinton and Trump opened the debate on a positive note by shaking hands before stationing themselves behind their podiums. Their spouses, former President Bill Clinton and Melania Trump, also greeted each other before taking their seats in the debate hall.
From there, the drama quickly unfolded.
An increasingly angry Trump slammed Clinton for putting her plans to fight ISIS on her website — and thereby tipping off America’s enemy.
“Well, at least I have a plan to fight ISIS,” Clinton responded, referring to his previous statements that he has a “secret” plan to destroy the terrorist group.
Battling over taxes
Clinton also hit Trump over his refusal to release his tax returns.
“Why won’t he release his tax returns?” Clinton asked.
“Maybe he is not as rich as he says he is,” she went on. “Maybe he is not as charitable as he claims to be. … Maybe he doesn’t want the American people to know that he has paid nothing in federal taxes.”
Clinton pressed Trump on the issue, saying “There is something he is hiding.”
Trump replied that he would release his taxes when Clinton made public 33,000 emails that were deleted from her private email server. When Clinton said that Trump had paid no federal income tax in some years, Trump replied, “That makes me smart.”
Clinton also set about Trump’s business record, pointing out that he had called himself “The King of Debt” and accusing him of “stiffing” thousand of contractors who did work for his business.
When the debate turned to racial issues and crime, Clinton said that it was important for police to work together with local communities to restore trust.
Trump accused Clinton of refusing to say the phrase “law and order” and bemoaned the state of inner cities. He said that African-Americans and Hispanics were “living in hell.”
“You walk down the street, you get shot,” Trump said.
Clinton rebuked Trump for painting “such a dire picture” of black communities.