(CNN) Hillary Clinton showed up at the debate of the century and delivered. Donald Trump started out strong, then struggled.
The Democratic and Republican nominees waged a fiery battle Monday night when they appeared on stage together for the first time — a clash of two famous personalities locked in a dead heat for the presidency. During one of the most highly anticipated debates in modern political history, the candidates drew sharp contrasts on temperament, character and policy and starkly different visions of where they would lead the nation.
Clinton had the better night, repeatedly putting the Republican nominee on defense on the issues most likely to damage his White House campaign — his refusal to release his taxes, his past comments on race and his attitude toward women.
By Tuesday morning, Clinton knew she came out on top. During a gaggle with reporters on her plane, Clinton taunted Trump’s complaint that the microphone at his podium was “defective.”
“Anybody who complains about the microphone is not having a good night.”
Trump started out strong and made effective points on the economy, trade and jobs that were uncomfortable at times for his rival. He put Clinton in a tight spot as he repeatedly accused her of being in Washington for 30 years and of doing little to improve the economic health of Americans, a line that could resonate in key swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The debate, at Hofstra University on New York’s Long Island, came at a critical point of the campaign: Trump has grabbed momentum in national polls and narrowed the race in some of the most decisive swing states. The debate had the potential for him to build on that momentum with 42 days remaining before Election Day.
First signs positive for Clinton
But the first results indicated that Clinton won. A CNN/ORC poll after the clash showed Clinton had a commanding victory, by 62% to 27%. The poll suggested the debate audience was a bit more Democratic than the public as a whole, about on par with the Democratic tilt in the audience that watched the first debate in 2008 between Barack Obama and John McCain.
In all, 68% of those asked said Clinton had a better understanding of the issues, while 27% said the same of Trump. Asked whether Trump could handle the presidency, 55% said no.
It will be several days, however, until conventional wisdom about the result of the showdown gels and its impact on the campaign becomes evident. Trump appeared to do nothing to shake the strong faith in his campaign among his core supporters, though the Republican nominee may have failed to broaden his coalition among key voting blocks, minorities and women.
The showdown came at a critical point in the race. Another CNN/ORC poll released Monday found Trump edging Clinton 42% to 41% in the crucial battleground state of Colorado among likely voters in a four-way race. In Pennsylvania, another key state, the poll found Clinton in a virtual tie against Trump among likely voters at 45% to 44%.
The former secretary of state is relying on both states to help pave her way to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
Nationally, CNN’s Poll of Polls finds Clinton and Trump neck-and-neck 44%-42%.
Both candidates clearly understood that the central question of Monday’s debate was about who had the right temperament and character to serve as President of the United States. Clinton delivered the best zinger of the night in response to criticism from Trump for staying off the campaign trail recently.
“I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate,” she said. “And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be President. And that is a good thing.”
Clinton also repeatedly brought attention to Trump’s reputation for spreading falsehoods and repeatedly tried to needle him, at one point blasting his “trumped up, trickle down” economics.
Trump, however, said he was much better suited to the burdens of the Oval Office.
“I have a winning temperament, I know how to win. She does not know how to win,” he said.
The billionaire skewered Clinton on her past support for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which she declared the “gold standard” when she was secretary of state but now opposes.
Clinton’s team was clearly delighted with their candidate’s performance, declaring her the clear winner. Trump appeared in the “spin room” as soon as the 90 minute debate was over, telling CNN’s Dana Bash “it went better than I ever thought.” He also told reporters his microphone wasn’t working and questioned whether that was happening on purpose.