One came with an at­tack plan and ex­e­cuted

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Cath­leen Decker

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Don­ald Trump left the pro­tec­tive bub­ble of his par­ti­sans on Mon­day and learned a well-es­tab­lished truth about cam­paigns: The rhetoric that draws rap­tur­ous ap­plause at ral­lies doesn’t play as well in the out­side world.

The Trump on­stage Mon­day was the Trump seen ev­ery day in his cam­paign. He used the same lan­guage, told the same sto­ries, de­cried the same dis­as­ters. But he did not do what a 90minute de­bate gives can­di­dates an op­por­tu­nity to do: flesh out an ex­pla­na­tion of how he or she would run the coun­try, and in­vite vot­ers who aren’t al­ready com­mit­ted to come along for the ride.

In­stead, Trump flinched un­der Hil­lary Clin­ton’s tough crit­i­cism.

Worse, he made off-the-cuff re­marks that lent cred­i­bil­ity to her cri­tiques of him. He de­fended say­ing the hous­ing crash was a good busi­ness op­por­tu­nity. He said that not pay­ing fed­eral in­come taxes “makes me smart.” He in­sisted that not pay­ing con­trac­tors ac­cord--

ing to their con­tracts was another busi­ness de­ci­sion.

He in­sisted over and over that he had not said things about women and the Iraq war that, be­cause of mil­lions of dol­lars of ads aired al­ready in this cam­paign, Amer­i­can vot­ers have al­ready seen and heard him say.

He also did lit­tle to pros­e­cute his case against Clin­ton. He did hit her re­peat­edly for be­ing part of the po­lit­i­cal sta­tus quo. But her big­gest li­a­bil­ity — the fact that a ma­jor­ity of vot­ers don’t trust her — went al­most un­men­tioned. Another neg­a­tive for Clin­ton, her use of a pri­vate email sys­tem while sec­re­tary of State, was barely touched. When Trump did bring it up, it was as an at­tempt to change the sub­ject from his un­re­leased in­come tax re­turns.

Clin­ton, for her part, of­fered a more thor­ough ex­pla­na­tion of what her pres­i­dency would en­tail, tick­ing off multi-part plans for im­prov­ing the econ­omy and race re­la­tions and fight­ing ter­ror­ism at home and abroad. But she also nee­dled Trump on both pol­icy and per­sonal mat­ters.

Early on, in a seg­ment about the econ­omy, she said Trump’s busi­ness em­pire had been salted with $14 mil­lion from his fa­ther — a re­flec­tion of the $1-mil­lion loan the Repub­li­can ac­knowl­edges and other loans that came to light re­cently. Trump seemed un­nerved and after­ward de­fended his busi­ness prac­tices re­peat­edly, tak­ing time that he could have spent craft­ing an ar­gu­ment for vot­ers not al­ready on his side.

Clin­ton’s per­for­mance — which Demo­cratic an­a­lysts and some Repub­li­cans as well re­garded as dom­i­nant — prob­a­bly will not re­sult in a mas­sive shift to her side of the elec­toral ledger; Repub­li­cans have ral­lied around Trump lately, and po­lar­iza­tion more than any­thing sug­gests a con­tin­u­ing close race.

But Clin­ton cer­tainly quelled con­cern among her sup­port­ers about her re­cent slip in the polls. And — par­tic­u­larly when the de­bate turned to Trump’s past ref­er­ences to women, Lati­nos and African Amer­i­cans — Clin­ton laid the ground­work for im­prove­ment among voter groups that she needs to gain the White House on Nov. 8.

The de­bate, the first of three pres­i­den­tial meet­ings within the next month, oc­curred as a host of na­tional sur­veys showed Clin­ton and Trump locked in an ex­tremely tight race for the pres­i­dency. Clin­ton has held on to an edge in the low sin­gle dig­its na­tion­ally, but Trump has mounted a surge in the bat­tle­ground states that will de­cide the win­ner in Novem­ber.

That had suf­fused his cam­paign with con­fi­dence. But none of the new polling has changed the rough dy­nam­ics of the race.

Clin­ton has a strong lead among women, non­white vot­ers and the col­lege-ed­u­cated. Trump has a strong hold on ru­ral and non-col­lege-ed­u­cated vot­ers. The two have been tus­sling over sub­ur­ban­ites who usu­ally lean Repub­li­can, and younger vot­ers who have not warmed to the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee as they did to the pre­de­ces­sor in that role, Pres­i­dent Obama.

Those were the vot­ers each cam­paign should have tar­geted Mon­day night. But at times it ap­peared only Clin­ton had her eye on them.

The sub­ur­ban vot­ers have backed away from em­brac­ing Trump be­cause of his history of coarse com­ments about women, the dis­abled and other groups, and be­cause of con­cerns about his lack of ex­pe­ri­ence nav­i­gat­ing a treach­er­ous world of nu­clear-armed op­po­nents.

He could have mit­i­gated at least some of their wor­ries by com­ing out with a calm recita­tion of the steps he would take, for ex­am­ple, to di­min­ish the reach of Is­lamic State. But he of­fered lit­tle but an in­dict­ment of Clin­ton and Obama for al­low­ing that mil­i­tant group to grow.

If view­ers were look­ing for an ex­plicit path for­ward on that brand of ter­ror­ism, in­creas­ingly a do­mes­tic con­cern, it did not present it­self.

Clin­ton, whose study­ing for the de­bate was mocked by Trump, pointed out the com­pli­cated ori­gins of Mideast trou­bles and ticked off el­e­ments of her plan.

With an eye to those sub­ur­ban vot­ers, Clin­ton also listed, at one time or another, al­most ev­ery gibe Trump has made that ruf­fled them; Trump did not al­ways dis­agree.

At one point, she re­minded view­ers of a lesser­known Trump line, in which he promised to blow out of the wa­ter Ira­nian sailors who taunted U.S. troops. That, Clin­ton said, would beget war.

“That wouldn’t start a war,” Trump replied, es­sen­tially con­firm­ing her re­cap of the com­ments.

The up­side to Clin­ton among younger vot­ers came with her ex­pli­ca­tion of Trump’s five-year cam­paign to dis­qual­ify as pres­i­dent Barack Obama, for whom those vot­ers were much of his base. But she also took pains to reach out on other fronts.

From the first an­swer, she re­peat­edly talked of in­vest­ing in Amer­i­can jobs, in­creas­ing in­come equal­ity and rais­ing the pay of women — all sub­jects of con­cern to young vot­ers.

“I want us to in­vest in you. I want us to in­vest in your fu­ture,” she said.

Typ­i­cally, one party’s pitch for a third suc­ces­sive term is an up­hill bat­tle, given the usual de­sire for change, es­pe­cially no­table this year in a na­tion whose eco­nomic re­cov­ery has been mot­tled and un­even.

Trump made a stab late in the de­bate at fram­ing Clin­ton’s suc­ces­sion of Obama in a neg­a­tive way.

“Let me tell you, Hil­lary has ex­pe­ri­ence, but it’s bad ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said.

He added: “And this coun­try can’t af­ford to have another four years of that kind of ex­pe­ri­ence. “

The tenor of the night might have changed had Trump opened the de­bate with that ar­gu­ment and pressed it through­out. But he did not seem to have spent time craft­ing a plan of ac­tion for the de­bate, which is a ba­sic step ex­pected of can­di­dates.

And so the de­bate, re­peat­edly, shifted on to ter­rain more help­ful to Clin­ton.

Then, too, Trump has made so much of this cam­paign about him — and drawn so much sup­port for do­ing it that way — that it was not sur­pris­ing that he might have had trou­ble shift­ing his fo­cus away from his fa­vorite lines.

The ex­tent to which he has dug a hole for him­self by not de­liv­er­ing a more promis­ing per­for­mance was ev­i­dent when he was try­ing to deny that he sup­ported the Iraq war, as did Clin­ton.

“Why is your judg­ment — why is your judg­ment any dif­fer­ent than Mrs. Clin­ton’s judg­ment?” mod­er­a­tor Lester Holt asked.

“Well, I have much bet­ter judg­ment than she does. There’s no ques­tion about that. I also have a much bet­ter tem­per­a­ment than she has, you know?”

At that, the au­di­ence in the Hof­s­tra Univer­sity de­bate hall laughed, as if his view was not theirs.

Trump has two more de­bates in which he can at­tempt to broaden be­yond his loyal sup­port­ers to­ward a plu­ral­ity of vot­ers cast­ing bal­lots in Novem­ber.

But the first de­bate, both be­cause it oc­curred as he was rising in the polls and be­cause it is likely to be watched by the most Amer­i­cans, served as his best shot at open­ing a sig­nif­i­cant lead over Clin­ton.

The race is not over, not for 42 more days. But Trump’s op­por­tu­ni­ties are cer­tainly di­min­ish­ing in num­ber.

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