If Clinton came looking for a fight, she found it. Her aggressive tone drew Trump in.
He attacked Clinton right back, showing flashes of anger that channeled public frustration and also the coarser side of his public persona.
It made for some lively exchanges, including several that brought an edge to Trump’s tone.
“She doesn’t have the look,” Trump said toward the end of the debate. “She doesn’t have the stamina.”
Trump appeared rattled at times, particularly as the debate wore on. Yet his main attacks on Clinton were rooted in policy grounds, as he sought to give voice to public anger not just at Clinton but at the broader political class.
“You’ve been doing this for 30 years — why are you just thinking about these solutions now?” Trump said in a section of the debate about ways to create jobs.
“I have thought about this quite a bit,” Clinton countered.
“Yeah, for 30 years,” Trump responded.
Trump stretched facts and attacked Clinton’s temperament. He — for the most part — kept his cool.
Throughout the debate, Clinton called Trump “Donald.” He almost always referred to her as “Secretary Clinton” and made sure that was all right with her.
“I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me,” Trump said, challenging the fact-checkers once again.
Trump was brought onto his shakiest ground of the night when moderator Lester Holt brought up President Barack Obama’s birthplace — specifically why it took Trump until just weeks ago to declare the matter settled.
Trump flatly said, “I say nothing” to those who wonder why he pushed the matter as long as he did. And he falsely accused Clinton of starting the birther question in 2007, claiming credit for putting the issue to rest.
“Just like she can’t bring back jobs, she can’t produce” Obama’s birth certificate, Trump said.
Apparently worried that Trump would be on his best behavior, Clinton started her barrage early. She suggested that Trump’s success is inherited, and that he’s hiding his tax returns to avoid embarrassment.
“Maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is,” she said. “Maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be.”
Trump didn’t even bother to deny Clinton’s suggestion that he hasn’t paid income taxes “for a lot of years,” turning even that into an argument against the status quo.
“It would be squandered too, believe me,” Trump said.
“I have a feeling that by the end of this evening, I’m going to be blamed for everything that ever happened,” Clinton said at one point.
Trump: “Why not?”
Clinton: “Just join the debate by saying more crazy things.”
Clinton had one of her better moments in declaring her fitness for office, keying off of Trump’s criticism of her for retreating from the campaign trail.
“Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And yes, I did,” she said. “And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.”
Later in the debate, Trump allowed that Clinton has experience, “but it’s bad experience,” he said.
“This country can't afford to have another four years of that kind of experience,” Trump said.
After the first extraordinary encounter between two extraordinarily unpopular nominees, the plays are clear. Clinton is putting her experience up against the anger Trump is channeling, anger that has two distinct sides to it.
They proved they can get under each other’s skin. But neither candidate proved that he or she has a winning message, not on the night of the first debate.