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Who Won the First Presidential Debate?

September 27, 2016, 3:31 AM UTC

Hillary Clinton won. In the first and potentially most consequential presidential debate of 2016, the Democratic nominee presented as composed and commanding, ticking through her policy prescriptions while landing a series of devastating blows on Donald Trump’s record and readiness. A fidgety Trump meanwhile tried repeatedly to ruffle her with interruptions while riffing his way through his own answers, but struggled on both counts.

Trump arguably had his best moments in the opening section of the debate, which tends to be its most-watched portion. Drawing from his stump speech, he conjured an image of a blighted U.S., outsmarted by its trading partners and abused by its own companies. He promised, with his trademark bluster and imprecision, to get tough on those responsible at home and abroad. “We have to stop our jobs from leaving,” he said, dismissing Clinton as a member of the entrenched political class that’s presided over an economic hollowing-out.

Yet Clinton moved from the start to stick Trump in his softest spot: his business dealings. In her second answer, she explained their differing approaches to the economy as the product of their “different perspectives.” While she was raised in a middle-class family, she said, Trump started out in the real-estate business with $14 million in loans from father. Trump maintains he only received a small fraction of that amount, a key to his narrative about being self-made.

Trump took the bait, the first of several times that he allowed Clinton to provoke him with scripted digs that kept him on the defensive. She weaved into an answer about economic progress under President Obama, for example, a mention that Trump cheered the housing collapse at the time as an opportunity to turn a profit. And Trump chimed in: “That’s called business, by the way.” He deployed another self-defeating interruption as Clinton listed reasons Trump might be avoiding releasing 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,” Clinton said. Trump, apparently confirming the charge, blurted, “That makes me smart.”

It got worse for Trump as the night wore on. After Clinton reeled off a summary of her plans for criminal justice reform, Trump offered his own version, which boiled down to reviving the stop-and-frisk approach pioneered and since abandoned by the New York City Police Department. Promising to restore law and order, Trump once again painted a dystopic vision of American inner cities as war zones, noting he’s seen them in person on recent visits while Clinton “decided to stay home.” Clinton interjected, “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. 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,” prompting a round of applause from the crowd, which had been instructed to stay silent.

Later in the debate, the Republican nominee asserted that he’s “developed very, very good relationships over the last little while with the African-American community.” Polling doesn’t support the claim, with national surveys showing Trump’s support among black voters hovering in the single digits. But the Clinton campaign likewise has concerns with the demographic — that their middling enthusiasm with her candidacy with lead to low turnout, which could tip the balance in key swing states like Florida and North Carolina. Clinton helped her cause on that front in the debate, in part thanks to Trump injuring his own.

Asked about his years-long push for the lie that President Obama was born abroad — a campaign viewed by African-Americans as a racist attempt to discredit the first black president — Trump offered no apologies. Instead, he once again tried to blame Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign for originating the myth and claimed credit for settling it by finally annoying Obama into releasing his long-form birth certificate in 2011. And when pressed by NBC moderator Lester Holt on what he’d say to black voters about his birther advocacy, Trump replied, “I say nothing. I say nothing, because I was able to get him to produce it. He should have produced it a long time before. I say nothing.”

Trump didn’t fare much better when the topic turned to women, with whom Clinton also enjoys a disproportionate advantage. Asked to explain what he meant when he remarked recently that Clinton doesn’t have a “presidential look,” Trump insisted he was referring to her stamina, which he called lacking. It’s a familiar critique from Trump, who first used it to greater effect against former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the primaries. Ironically, Trump attempted it Monday toward the end of the debate, as he himself appeared increasingly gassed. Clinton quickly turned it back around on him, using it to land a final — and brutal — scripted attack: “You know, he tried to switch from looks to stamina. But this is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs,” she said. “And one of the worst things he said was about a woman in a beauty contest. He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them. And he called this woman Miss Piggy. Then he called her Miss Housekeeping, because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name. Her name is Alicia Machado. And she just became a U.S. citizen, and you can bet she is going to vote this November.”

Trump didn’t have a ready reply, mentioning that he’d directed some of his rougher comments about women toward Rosie O’Donnell, “and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her.” Then, the candidate who’s styled himself as the consummate tough guy gave himself credit for holding back on something “extremely rough to Hillary” that he could have said but decided against. And he complained that Clinton has “spent hundreds of millions of dollars on negative ads on me, many of which are absolutely untrue. They’re untrue. And they’re misrepresentations. And I will tell you this, Lester: It’s not nice. And I don’t deserve that.”

It was as if after getting manhandled for the better part of 90 minutes before a nine-figure audience, Trump was asking for a reprieve.