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The most anticipated presidential debate in history unfolded in largely predictable ways — Hillary Clinton showed command of the issues, and patience, but sometimes wandered into government-speak that may have lost some viewers.
Donald Trump spoke in much broader terms, interrupting his opponent and repeating arguments he first made in the primary season.
“I have a winning temperament,” he said. “I know how to win.”
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Yet he did not appear to win Monday. He seemed taken aback by Clinton’s early aggression, forced to defend his business record and past statements under her relentless and sometimes personal criticisms.
Here’s a look at the highs and lows of the 90-minute exchange:
Trump’s best moment: Near the end of the debate, Trump tried to explain his position on NATO by insisting other nations should bear more of the cost of defending against aggression. “We cannot be the policeman of the world,” Trump said, a popular sentiment in a war-weary nation. It also neatly summarizes Trump’s America-first platform.
Clinton’s best moment: Clinton hammered Trump on his refusal to release his tax returns. “Maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes.” It’s an old claim, but Clinton succeeded in linking the issue to spending for troops and veterans.
Incredibly, Trump did not reject Clinton’s statement that he had paid no taxes. “That makes me smart,” he said.
Trump’s worst moment: He insisted he has always opposed the war in Iraq. Numerous fact-checking organizations have debunked the claim, and re-litigating the issue for two minutes may have wasted his debate time.
More to the point: if Trump opposed the Iraq war, why would he oppose bringing the troops home from it? He’s never really explained that contradiction, and glossed over it during the debate.
Clinton’s worst moment: After a Trump barrage, she complained that “by the end of this evening, I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened.” It seemed like whining. (Trump may have stepped on the moment by adding “Why not?”)
Biggest surprises: Trump’s statement that he supports banning gun sales to persons on the no-fly watch list. Just moments earlier, Trump said “we have to take the guns away from these people that have them and they are bad people that shouldn't have them.”
It’s possible the Republican’s support from gun rights activists and the National Rifle Association could wobble.
Trump never brought up Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” statement, and only once emphasized her emails scandal. And immigration policy was barely mentioned.
Bonus surprises: The scandals surround the candidates’ nonprofit foundations were not major discussion points in the debate. And Clinton’s direct and sometimes personal criticisms of Trump were surprising — she alleged her opponent “has a long record of engaging in racist behavior.”
Demeanor: Trump appeared to approach the debate prepared to tone down his aggressive rhetoric. That lasted about 10 minutes. He interrupted Clinton on numerous occasions, raised his eyebrows, shrugged and grimaced.
Near the end he said he was prepared to hit Clinton “very hard,” but decided against it. She attacked Trump for his statements about women, which he claimed were made for “entertainment.”
At the same time, Trump was much more plain-spoken than his opponent. He stumbled on some technical terms — he said Mexico has a “VAT,” which most Americans might not understand — but he seemed more direct and much less political than Clinton. (A VAT is a value-added tax, which resembles a sales tax.)
Trump often jumped from subject to subject, sometimes making it harder to follow his train of thought.
Clinton did not lapse into government-speak as often as she has in other debates. And she calmly explained why Trump’s tax record and bankruptcies are important to ordinary voters. But she did much better criticizing Trump than she did explaining her own vision for the country, a shortfall that some believe has led to an “enthusiasm gap” for her campaign.
Knowledge of issues: Clinton scored when she reminded voters of the nation’s economy eight years ago.
Trump did not appear to understand the concept of “first use” in nuclear warfare. The United States has never formally rejected first use of nuclear weaponry, a policy position President Barack Obama has considered changing.
In his answer to a question about first use, Trump said “I would certainly not do first strike.” Then he added: “We can’t take anything off the table.”
It isn’t clear precisely what that means — but if he’s committing to not using nuclear weapons first, that would be a major change in American policy.
Overall impression: Trump’s performance mirrored his primary debates — he was bombastic, argumentative, general rather than specific. That won him the nomination. He said nothing Monday that will upset his supporters, other than the comments about gun rights.
Clinton’s performance probably exceeded her campaign’s expectations. She did not seem weary or tired, and showed a solid command of issues and policies.
Lester Holt: The NBC newsman did a good job in tough circumstances. He did lose control of the exchanges at times, but that was more the candidates’ fault than his.