Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, stands with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton before the first presidential debate at Hofstra University, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Hempstead, N.Y. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton unloaded on each other Monday in the first presidential debate, clashing from the start of the much-anticipated showdown after months of sniping and taunting each other on the campaign trail.
With a spate of new polls showing the race is as close as ever, Clinton took the offensive early, accusing the Republican of “a long record of engaging in racist behavior” and assailing his economic plan as “Trumped-up trickle down policy.” She also used the spotlight to suggest Trump is “hiding” a secret in his refusal to release personal tax returns.
Like a coiled spring, Trump responded with a string of comebacks. He depicted her as a “typical politician” with a string of bad decisions that led to troubling trade deals and forced manufacturers in Michigan, Ohio and other hard-hit states to hemorrhage jobs overseas.
“You’ve been doing this for 30 years, why are you just starting to look at solutions now?” he said, turning to Clinton: “I will bring back jobs; you can’t bring back jobs.”
The two squabbled throughout the 90-minute debate over who could best marshal the nation’s economic and military might and which candidate makes the best fit in the White House. Trump declared Clinton “wrong” several times throughout the debate, while she could be heard sighing in the microphone.
They were competing for the support of undecided voters torn between the unpredictable New York businessman vowing to upend Washington and a veteran politician who remains deeply unlikable to the general public after a quarter-century in the national glare.
A Super Bowl-sized audience
An audience that some analysts predicted could reach 100 million viewers tuned into the spectacle between two of the world’s more recognizable figures: a Republican outsider with brash promises to stop illegal immigration and invigorate the economy against a wonkish Democratic former secretary of state who promises to be a steady, experienced leader.
In a race between two unpopular candidates — polls rank the two as the most unlikable presidential contenders in modern U.S. history — both set out to reintroduce themselves to a weary American public. And for millions of voters who sat out the primaries or sided with one of their rivals, Monday was a 90-minute crash course in their campaigns.
Preparing for Trump was no easy task. The freewheeling, insult-spouting candidate who won over fed-up Republican voters in the primary gave way to a relatively more measured candidate in September. The Trump who showed up at Hofstra University on Monday seemed more the former than the latter.
He threw elbows from the start, often talking over both her and NBC’s Lester Holt, the moderator. In one testy exchange, he said Douglas MacArthur, the late military hero, would be infuriated by her for putting her proposal to defeat the Islamic State on her website.
“At least I have a plan to fight ISIS,” she responded.
“You’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life,” he shot back.
But Clinton didn’t wait for an onslaught to launch her own offensive. She suggested his failure to release his tax returns was a sign he either paid no federal income tax or that he’s not worth the billions he claims, and pointedly said she’s more prepared to be president.
“I know you live in your reality,” she said, responding to his claims that past Democratic presidents failed to stop jobs from going overseas.
‘Let down’ voters
The tightening of the race six weeks before the election has ratcheted up the pressure on Clinton, whose hefty advantage evaporated during a dismal September. Polls show Trump and Clinton are deadlocked in Ohio and several other critical battleground states and that he’s built a consistent, if slim, lead in Georgia.
Clinton and Trump have been sniping at each other for months, and the two have competing plans on just about every significant policy divide. But the tone has grown even more contentious in recent weeks, framed by troubling questions of national security and long-simmering racial strife that could shape the final stretch of the campaign.
The terror bombing earlier this month in New York forced both candidates to spar over which was best equipped to protect the nation and combat the Islamic State, with Clinton accusing Trump of helping the terror group’s recruitment with his divisive rhetoric.
And the fatal police shootings of black men in Charlotte, N.C., and Tulsa, Okla., in the past week — followed by protests and unrest in both cities — led both to recalibrate their approach. Clinton pressured Charlotte police to release video footage of the shooting, while Trump endorsed “stop-and-frisk” policies reviled by many leaders in the black community.
The Republican said Clinton has refused to talk about “law and order” and that he’s developed stronger relations with black voters, many of whom he said were in a “living hell” with rising crime and murder rates in Chicago and other troubled cities.
“The African-American community has been let down by politicians,” he said.
Clinton used the opportunity to cast Trump as the chief proponent of the falsehood that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., which she called a “racist lie that our first black president was not a U.S. citizen.”
The debate, the first of three to be held over the next four weeks, comes at a perilous time for both candidates. Clinton still has a clearer path to victory in the complicated Electoral College calculus, and polls show many Americans still say Trump is unfit for the presidency.
But Trump is trying to gain ground among voters who are disgusted with Clinton and don’t see a third-party candidate such as Libertarian Gary Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, as a credible alternative. And while analysts are split on whether debates influence voter patterns, polls show many consider them a major influence on who they will pick.
If Monday’s debate was any indication, voters are in for a rocky end to a roller-coaster presidential election.
At one point a beleaguered Clinton said she had a feeling “I’m going to be blamed for everything” by the debate’s end.