Clinton-Trump debate: A bad TV night for the reality TV star who would be president

Old-school political debater tops veteran TV performer.

In TV terms, Donald Trump had a pretty bad night. He lost to Hillary Clinton on several levels in their first debate Monday with millions of undecided voters watching.

He started out strong - and looked for about 20 minutes like he was going to do the two things everyone said he had to: seem presidential and not take the bait Clinton was sure to wave in front of him on a variety of matters.

His followers can take comfort in the fact that he didn't say or do anything so off the rails that no reasonable person could ever take him seriously as president. But he spent the last 70 minutes or so of the debate clearly on the defensive with Clinton controlling the tempo and temper of the debate, while he missed several opportunities to go on the offensive over such issues as her private email server and Benghazi. He did not seem to have the kind of focus she did.

Not that she had a great night. Her preparation was better, no doubt about it. But she also had some over-prepared remarks that came off as canned and fell flat, like her statement on his economic plan: “I call it trumped-up trickle-down.”

And she had her share of Washington politico gasbag phrases that mean nothing.

“I have a very robust set of plans,” she said, when Trump accused her of having no plan for straightening out trade deals that he says are crushing American workers. "Robust" is the phoniest of phony Washington words. It's what politicians say when what they really have is weak.

The trade deal talk at the start of the debate was as close as he came to having any bright, shining moments. He didn't exactly shine, but he sounded better informed and stronger than her especially when he challenged her for once calling NAFTA the "gold standard" of trade deals.

But even the little TV things undermined Trump from start – like this business he was doing with his breathing that sounded like he was having an allergy sniffle or something. And he was drinking quite a bit of water along with it.

As viewers, we come to TV with an unconscious set of conventions in our heads as to how presidential debaters should behave, and those two repeated actions by him were distractions that made me wonder if something else was going on with his nerves or health.

As Trump might say: Not good.

Clinton wore a kind of dismissive smile on her face that inched into the territory where some might call it a smirk. There's danger in that for someone considered so unlikable by so many.

But I think she wanted to look and sound at points as if she were mocking Trump when he said what she termed "crazy things" during the debate. And the more she literally laughed at him, the more off his game and defensive he became – going down several rabbit holes trying to justify his claims in the face of her scorn.

The other TV factor likely to be much debated is the role moderator Lester Holt played in the 90 minute production.

There is no doubt Holt challenged and interrupted Trump more than he did Clinton. It seemed especially pointed when Holt asked Trump about race and the GOP candidate talked mainly about the need for "law and order."

But, in fairness to Holt, Trump was doing his deflection dance and not answering the questions Holt asked in a couple of cases.

Since Holt told viewers at the start that the questions were his and his alone, some Trump supporters are sure to come after the NBC anchorman for not pressing Clinton about her use of a private email server, the emails she deleted and the immunity granted to five of her aides in the FBI inquiry. She got off with simply saying her use of the server was a "mistake," and only Trump pushed her on minimizing it that way.

Of the two, Trump has been widely considered the better TV performer, while Clinton is acknowledged as the more experienced old-school political debater.

Monday night, the debater topped the TV performer in a prime-time match-up.

What will be fascinating to see is if Trump and his advisers have learned anything about the conventions and expectations for one-on-one political debates television – and if they can apply it the next time these two meet.

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