My view is that Donald Trump won tonight’s debate. He dominated the stage and landed shot after shot on Hillary Clinton. Hillary, meanwhile, struggled to say much that will connect with voters except perhaps Muslim-Americans.
This was the performance Trump’s supporters wanted to see in the first debate. If the Access Hollywood tape had not surfaced, Trump might be well on his way to pulling back to even, or close to even, with Clinton.
But the tape did surface and it dominated the first part of the debate, during which Trump, naturally, was at his least effective. I don’t think he did badly on the tape. Initially, he did what I thought was required of him — express remorse over his comments (though he could have done so more effectively) and move on to the issues.
The moderators, though, were determined not to let him off that easily. When pressed, he unloaded on Bill Clinton for his predatory conduct and, in a good move, against Hillary — not for being married to Bill but for getting the rapist of a 12 year-old girl off and then laughing about it on tape (the victim was in the audience tonight).
Trump then turned to Hillary’s emails. He attacked her on them much more effectively than during the first debate. However, he overplayed his hand, I think, when he said that in a Trump administration, Hillary will be in jail.
Threatening to imprison your female political opponent doesn’t seem like the path to winning the support of voters, especially females, who are concerned about your temperament and the way you treat women. It’s possible that in this moment Trump did his candidacy serious damage.
Regardless of how one scores this portion of the slugfest, it was as riveting as anything I’ve seen on television, not just in a debate but in any non-sports program. There was Trump, stalking around the stage like an animal fighting for survival. There was Clinton, hoping to land the blows that would finish Trump off, but being thrown off balance by the ferocity of his punches, and trying to figure out whether Trump was destroying his candidacy or substantially reviving it.
At various stages, Trump came close to doing both. In the end, I think he did neither. And after fighting as ferociously as he did tonight, it should be clear to even those most prone to wishful thinking that Trump isn’t stepping down.
I’m not going to predict just where the polls will stand after this debate and whatever “afters” take place (last time the “afters” regarding Miss Universe seemed to hurt Trump at least as much as the debate itself). However, I will speculate that any boost Trump receives from his strong performance tonight may, at best, only offset the damage from the Access Hollywood tape.
Unfortunately for Trump, he was already significantly, though not hopelessly, behind when the tape emerged. And it may not be the last one we see.