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No surge for Clinton, but she may have wooed the undecided

By Aziz Haniffa
September 28, 2016 14:36 IST
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Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the first debate

The fight was for the more than 10 million millennials, the undecided and the independents and Clinton clearly came out on top, feels Aziz Haniffa.

Cliched as it has become, the match-up between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was billed in pugilistic terms, and did live up to its hype.

Monday's first presidential debate had all the trappings of a prize fight, and was fierce and contentious from the get go.

The night, as it wore on, clearly belonged to Hillary.

While her supporters argued that she won by a knockout, as she delivered blow after blow on Trump's refusal to reveal his tax returns, his 'birtherism' crusade against President Barack Obama, and his early support for the Iraq war, there was no denying that at the very least, she scored a convincing points victory.

Trump kept jabbing away through the 98-minute debate, scoring on issues of trade, the loss of manufacturing jobs and Hillary's early support for trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Then Hillary's baiting him, particularly on his Achilles' heel that went to the core of his ego and narcissism in that he is not the successful businessman he claims he is, told on him, leaving him incoherent, babbling, and veering off message.

The clearly well-prepped Hillary, in a composed and disciplined, yet a methodical and aggressive strategy, landed punch after punch as he took the bait and kept digging himself deeper and deeper into the ditch.

Thus, after those first few minutes when he seemed like a credible and viable candidate of change out to topple the political establishment that Hillary represents, someone who offers nothing but more of the same, Trump began to unravel.

Thereafter, he was virtually in defensive mode as Clinton went on the offensive, leaving him rambling on and on. He failed to seize opportunities on which he could have pilloried Hillary -- from her e-mail controversy to the Clinton Foundation and foreign policy failures during her tenure as Secretary of State.

And while some conservatives, in bursts of delusion, compared him to Ronald Reagan, there were absolutely no Reaganesque moments nor any zingers like the ones The Gipper had delivered against his Democratic rivals Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale in 1980 and 1984. Far from it.

When Trump doubled down defensively on issues like his taxes, the birtherism issue and previous insults against women, Clinton skillfully used them to reinforce the perceptions that he probably has something to hide and perhaps has not paid any federal taxes, and is a racist and misogynist at heart.

When he took credit for forcing Obama to produce his birth certificate and prove that he was born in America, this hardly endeared him to the African-American community who he has been trying to reach out to in the last few weeks of the election campaign.

Hillary refused to let him off the hook when he implied it was time to move on from this issue, saying, 'It can't be dismissed that easily.'

Trump had really started his political activity based on this racist lie that America's first black President was not an American citizen, she said.

'There was absolutely no evidence for it, but he persisted, he persisted year after year, because some of his supporters, people he was trying to bring into his fold, apparently believed it or wanted to believe it,' Clinton asserted.

And she rubbed it in, saying, 'And the birther lie was very hurtful one. You know President Obama is a man of great dignity. And I could tell how much it bothered him and annoyed him that this was being touted and used against him.'

She also seized on the opportunity to slam Trump for his Islamophobia, and his call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, noting that 'Donald has consistently insulted Muslims abroad, Muslims at home, when we need to be cooperating with Muslim nations and with the American Muslim community.'

Trump seemed out of his league when issues like cyber-security were brought up and besides defending Russia on the recent hacks in the US, bizarrely declared the hacker could be a 400 pound man on a bed somewhere -- probably angering the millions of obese folks in the country though offering a back-handed compliment on their prowess at cyber-warfare!

But it was in the final moments of the debate when the moderator, NBC News anchor Lester Holt, brought up the issue of Trump's assertions that Clinton had neither the looks nor the stamina to be president that Hillary let fly in only their second encounter together for this period of time -- the last time being 11 years ago when the Clintons attended Trump's third marriage to Melania.

Clinton, without missing a beat, was on a roll, saying, 'You know, he tried to switch from looks to stamina. But this is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs, and someone who said pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers.'

'Who has said women don't deserve equal pay unless they do as good a job as men. 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.'

'He called this woman "Miss Piggy",' Clinton said. 'Then he called her "Miss Housekeeping" because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name. Her name is Alicia Machado. And she has become a US citizen and you can bet she's going to vote this November.'

This was Clinton's most effective pummeling of Trump, next to her memorable comeback when the latter said Clinton had 'decided to stay home,' for the past few days to practice for the debate, unlike him who was on the campaign trail.

'I think Donald just criticised me for preparing for this debate,' Clinton replied. 'And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be President.'

Clinton's supporters, who despite their confidence about her debating prowess, were dreading that she would break out in a coughing fit or her allergies could cause dehydration or a fainting spell, marvelled at her stamina because it was not her, but Trump -- besides his sniffles which he blamed on a conspiracy of being given a defective microphone -- was the one frequently reaching for his glass of water, while Hillary had nary a sip during the entire non-stop debate.

In the final analysis, the jury is still out whether her performance will give her a bounce in the polls or Trump's surge that has made the race so close will remain unchanged.

Although 74 per cent of Americans said they would watch the debate, 80 per cent had declared their minds were already made up. So, for them in a sense, the debate, besides the entertainment aspect, also included perhaps a perverse expectation of a train-wreck by one of the candidates.

The fight was for the more than 10 million millennials, the undecided and the independents -- whether this debate and the two to follow can make a difference. If the persuadables can be persuaded and Clinton can hold on to the college-educated Republican women who were turned off by Trump.

Photograph: Rick Wilking/Reuters

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