Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump levelled sharp and personal charges and counter-charges over trade, the US economy, race and foreign policy in their first face-to-face debate, an event that put on display their starkly different personalities and visions of the nation’s future.
From the first question posed by moderator Lester Holt, the debate devolved into an exchange of accusations and blame as Trump and Clinton reached into each others’ past statements and records. On most policy issues they fell back on their standard campaign stances, offering no new proposals for how they would deal with the country’s challenges.
The debate on Monday night at Hofstra University in New York ended as it began with testy exchanges – and a few odd moments – between the candidates when Holt asked Trump about a comment he made that Clinton doesn’t present the image of a president.
"She doesn’t have the look, she doesn’t have the stamina,’’ Trump said, repeatedly questioning her vigour and endurance.
“Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a ceasefire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina,” responded Clinton, who served as US secretary of state.
Heading into the debate, staged 43 days from the November 8 election, Trump and Clinton were tied at 46 per cent in a head-to-head contest among likely voters, according to the latest Bloomberg Politics national poll. Trump, the Republican nominee, got 43 per cent to Democrat Clinton’s 41 per cent when third-party candidates are included.
While both candidates claimed victory after the debate, financial markets were judging it in favour of Clinton. US stock index futures reversed losses after it was over, Mexico’s peso rebounded from a record low and haven assets including the yen and gold fell, suggesting investors saw lower risks ahead. Citigroup has said a Trump win in November could sink equities and warned this week it may also spur volatility in both gold and currency markets.
With the race deadlocked, both candidates sought to solidify support among groups they’re counting on to cast ballots in the election and sway the small slice of the electorate that is still undecided.
Clinton made sure to highlight Trump’s past statements about women, a key demographic group in her campaign for the White House.
“This a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs, and someone who has 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,’’ Clinton said.
After Clinton chided him for his statements about women – though she never named anyone – Trump brought up television personality Rosie O’Donnell, who he once called “a real loser” and “fat”.
"Somebody who has been very vicious to me, Rosie O’Donnell, I said very tough things to her,” Trump said. “And I think everybody would agree that she deserves it, and nobody feels sorry for her.”
As they probed each others’ weaknesses, Trump raised the issue of Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state, and Clinton questioned why the Republican candidate won’t release his tax returns.
After Clinton repeated her calls for Trump to release his, as has been tradition for the past four decades among presidential nominees, Trump said he would, although with conditions connected to the e-mails that are missing from Clinton’s personal server when she was secretary of state.
"I will release my tax returns against my lawyer’s wishes when she releases her 33,000 e-mails that have been deleted," Trump said. "As soon as she releases them, I will release my tax returns."
Clinton said Trump’s refusal to release his returns suggests “there’s something he’s hiding”. Among the possibilities, she said, are he’s got foreign business entanglements that would create a conflict if he were in office or that he’s paid no federal income tax for years, which meant he’s contributed nothing to support US troops or veterans.
The two candidates made clear their disdain for each other as the debate wore on. Often when Clinton was speaking, Trump could be heard off-camera making a sceptical sigh.
Holt, of NBC News, struggled at times to maintain control and stay on schedule during the more than 90-minute session. What viewers saw was a combative Clinton who went on attack over Trump’s main bonafides for president – his business record – and Trump, supposedly preparing a more subdued approach, return quickly to his fiery ways.
Clinton presented Trump as both unprepared for the debate and for the presidency, as she sought to contrast her decades of experience in government. "I prepared to be president and that’s a good thing," she said.
Later, Trump responded: "Hillary has experience, but it’s bad experience."
The Democrat also went on the offense when the topic of President Barack Obama’s citizenship was introduced. For the past five years, Trump had raised questions and made insinuations about Obama’s birthplace and the authenticity of his birth certificate, before declaring in a 10-word statement on September 16 that the president was born in the US. Democrats have sought to keep the issue front and centre as a way to rally support for Clinton among minority voters.
"It can’t be dismissed that easily,” Clinton said. “He has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president wasn’t an American citizen.”
She also charged that he had discriminated against blacks as a landlord in New York in the 1970s. "He has a long record of engaging in racist behaviour," she said.
Trump responded by casting Clinton as a hypocrite. "When you try to act holier than thou, it really doesn’t work," he said.
As he has on numerous occasions before, Trump targeted the Federal Reserve and warned that the central bank’s policy of keeping interest rates low was politically motivated and sustaining artificial highs in the stock market. It’s a claim Fed Chair Janet Yellen has repeatedly denied.
"The Fed is being more political than Secretary Clinton," Trump said. “We are in a big, fat, ugly bubble. And we better be awfully careful. And we have a Fed that’s doing political things. This Janet Yellen of the Fed. The Fed is doing political – by keeping the interest rates at this level.”
Trump lashed out at trade with China and Mexico as he has throughout the campaign. He said the US was being put at a disadvantage. China, he said, is “using our country as a piggy bank.’’
Clinton responded that Trump’s economic plan is the “most extreme version’’ of standard Republican rhetoric. “I call it trumped up trickle-down.’’
For his part, Trump went after Clinton for her past support of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. "You called it the gold standard of trade deals," he said, recalling Clinton’s initial analysis of the TPP accord.
"Donald, I know you live in your own reality," Clinton responded.
At one point, Clinton said, "I have a feeling that by the end of the evening I’m going to be blamed for everything."
"Why not?" Trump shot back.
On national security, Trump accused Clinton and President Obama of creating a power vacuum in Iraq that helped fuel the rise of the Islamic State by the way US forces were withdrawn.
"I hope the fact checkers are turning up the volume and really working hard,’’ Clinton said. She said Trump supported the war in Iraq when he said he didn’t.
"Wrong, wrong,’’ Trump said, talking over her.
Holt suggested the record shows Trump was wrong, and Trump recited his media interviews on the topic.
“I have much better judgment than she has,’’ Trump said. “I also have much better temperament.’’
Among those in the audience were the spouses of the candidates, former President Bill Clinton and Melania Trump, who shook hands before they were seated.
After the debate, Trump said he thought the debate “went great.” He suggested that he showed restraint in the face of Clinton’s attacks, saying that he was going to raise Bill Clinton’s personal infidelities, but didn’t because he saw their daughter, Chelsea, in the audience.
Clinton went from Hofstra to a debate-watching party of supporters. "Do you feel good tonight?” she asked them. “Well I sure do. We had a great debate.”
A snap poll conducted by CNN among debate watchers found that 62 per cent judged Clinton as the winner, compared with 27 per cent who said Trump won.
Absent from Monday night’s debate were Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein. Neither reached the threshold of 15 per cent average support in recognised polls to qualify under the debate commission’s rules.