Hillary Clinton went on full offense at the first presidential debate. Donald Trump was playing a prevent defense. Did he let Hillary score? The short answer is yes. Trump seemed unwilling to play to his major strength, which is illegal immigration. Hillary hammered him on his temperament, and on several occasions he played into her hands. However, Trump has something that Hillary desperately needs right now, and that’s momentum.
We can all sit here and Monday-morning-quarterback the debate, but it was obvious that Trump’s handlers had one objective. That was to make sure Trump didn’t step on his own message. To that end, they were successful. However, he left a lot on the table.
Hillary’s people obviously told her to smile a lot, and she did, to the point of looking robotic. In the early stages of the debate, her eyes made her appear as though she was falling asleep. They closed so slowly that one was left wondering if they would open again. As the debate wore on she got better. With all of her recent health problems, there was speculation that she might not remain vertical through the 90-minute debate. For that reason alone she surpassed expectations. Hillary’s health was the one issue Trump needed to avoid at all costs, and he came dangerously close when he questioned her stamina.
This debate lacked much in the way of substance. It was Hillary charging hard into the line and Trump trying to keep her from advancing the ball. She justifiably hit Trump on the birther charge, then twisted it into some sort of racial attack. Trump seemed to allow her the yardage and really didn’t push back against the racism charge. Think what you will about questioning Obama’s birthplace, but there’s nothing racist about it. Trump asked the same questions of Ted Cruz and he’s a white guy. Of course, pointing out that he has a habit of such tactics only feeds into Hillary’s narrative that he’s unstable. He lost points on that issue, but it’s probably not an issue that many people care about.
What was conspicuously absent from Trump’s presentation was the central issue of illegal immigration and building the border wall. Perhaps it would’ve sounded too much like a caricature of himself. Maybe his handlers advised him to stay away from it, but it’s the central issue in his campaign and its absence left a gaping hole at the end of the night.
He also showed uncharacteristic restraint in not hitting Hillary on the issue of trustworthiness. It was an apple begging to be picked and he left it on the tree. But that would mean his game plan had changed to offense instead of defense, and it was obvious that was not how he planned to win.
Polls the day of the debate showed Trump pulling even in battleground states like Pennsylvania and Colorado. If he wins Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida this thing is pretty much over. His campaign team understands that, and they also understand that reverting to the candidate who seems to love the taste of his own foot is not how you win battleground states.
I said from the day Trump announced his candidacy that he is the empty vessel into which people pour their hopes and dreams. If he fills that vessel with his own Trump Punch then it defeats the purpose. Deliberate vagueness will always serve him better than specifics. That’s probably why the majority of those polled thought he won the debate.
This first debate was Trump’s to lose, and he managed not to do that.