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Clinton Wins Debate, But Did She Win Over Voters?

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Julio Cortez/AP

Hil­lary Clin­ton demon­strated a com­mand of policy on Monday night, and a cool con­fid­ence that she was more pre­pared than Don­ald Trump to be com­mand­er in chief. By the end of the first pres­id­en­tial de­bate, Trump looked peeved and dis­trac­ted. He didn’t get in a clev­er one-liner to de­fang Clin­ton’s cri­ti­cisms. The me­dia’s fo­cus groups of un­de­cided voters (on CNN and FOX) rated Clin­ton as the clear de­bate win­ner.

But when it comes to the polit­ic­al im­pact of the first de­bate, don’t ex­pect the fun­da­ment­als of this com­pet­it­ive race to change much. Trump, des­pite his cava­lier at­ti­tude be­fore­hand, demon­strated a ser­i­ous­ness that was lack­ing throughout the Re­pub­lic­an primary. He didn’t re­sort to im­ma­ture in­sults, re­ly­ing in­stead on pre­pared talk­ing points. Most im­port­antly, while he struggled to ad­vance many of his ar­gu­ments, his over­all cri­ti­cism of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of IS­IS and the Ir­an deal, along with his ref­er­ences to ra­cial un­rest and rising crime, have the po­ten­tial to win over un­de­cided voters. Voters may cred­it Clin­ton with her know­ledge of spe­cif­ics, but many are closer to Trump on in­stinct.

At a time when Amer­ic­ans want change, he came close to passing the ad­mit­tedly low threshold of look­ing like an ac­cept­able com­mand­er in chief. At the same time, he missed many op­por­tun­it­ies to hit Clin­ton on her biggest polit­ic­al vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies—the Benghazi scan­dal, her per­son­al email serv­er, her sup­port for sanc­tu­ary cit­ies, and her close ties to Wall Street firms.

Polls later this week will de­term­ine wheth­er Clin­ton re­ceived a bounce from her per­form­ance. But giv­en the fun­da­ment­als of the race—voters be­lieve the coun­try is on the wrong track, and are look­ing for a cred­ible al­tern­at­ive—Trump can prob­ably leave Long Is­land feel­ing he es­caped the bout without suf­fer­ing a de­cis­ive blow.

Clin­ton put Trump on the de­fens­ive about his taxes, while avoid­ing sim­il­ar ques­tions about the se­cur­ity of her email serv­er. As a can­did­ate who needs to en­er­gize her party’s Afric­an-Amer­ic­an base, she landed punches against Trump over his sup­port for the “birth­er” move­ment. And her most ef­fect­ive line of the night was one that un­der­scored her read­i­ness for the job. “You cri­ti­cize me for pre­par­ing for this de­bate,” she said. “And, yes, I did. Do you know what else I pre­pared for? I also pre­pared to be pres­id­ent.”

But the de­bate also served as a re­mind­er that many of the is­sues in this elec­tion fa­vor Re­pub­lic­ans. Trump got off to a sol­id start by demon­strat­ing his pop­u­list cre­den­tials on trade, for­cing Clin­ton to de­fend her flip-flop on the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship. His re­peated ar­gu­ment that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pre­ma­ture with­draw­al from Ir­aq al­lowed IS­IS to meta­stas­ize is bound to ring true to many voters. Clin­ton’s de­fense of the Ir­an deal was well-pre­pared, but Trump’s ar­gu­ment that the U.S. paid $150 bil­lion to a ter­ror-sup­port­ing state is tough to counter.

If a more ar­tic­u­late Re­pub­lic­an had been on the stage last night, he would have been able to more ef­fect­ively pro­sec­ute these glar­ing Demo­crat­ic vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies. But Trump scored points by simply bring­ing the is­sues up. It was also his first one-on-one de­bate, and he’s apt to be more for­mid­able in the next two if he’s able to keep his cool even as he zer­oes in on Clin­ton’s weak­nesses.

In a nor­mal polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment, Clin­ton would be well on her way to the pres­id­ency. She still is the fa­vor­ite in this race. But the same people who dis­missed Trump on Monday for demon­strat­ing a more re­fined ver­sion of his can­did­acy so far are over­look­ing why his plain-spoken mes­sage res­on­ated in the first place.

Josh Kraushaar

Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal, and pens the weekly "Against the Grain" column.

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