HEMPSTEAD, NEW YORK – Democrat Hillary Clinton accused Republican Donald Trump of racism, sexism and tax avoidance on Monday, putting him on the defensive during a debate that a snap poll said boosted her White House chances.
Trump, a real estate tycoon making his first run for public office, said Clinton’s long years of service represented “bad experience” with few results and said she lacked the stamina to serve as commander-in-chief.
Heading into the debate, staged 43 days from the Nov. 8 election, Clinton was under pressure to perform well after a bout with pneumonia and a drop in opinion polls, but her long days of preparation appeared to pay off in her highly anticipated first 90-minute standoff with Trump.
Trump, a former reality TV star who eschewed a lot of debate practice, was strong early on but appeared to become repetitive and more undisciplined as the night wore on in front of a televised audience that by some estimates may have been 100-million strong.
A CNN/ORC snap poll said 62 percent of respondents felt Clinton won and 27 percent believed Trump was the winner.
In signs that investors awarded the debate to Clinton also, Asian shares recovered from an early bout of nerves while the Mexican peso surged on Tuesday. Her chances in the election improved also on online betting markets.
“You feel good tonight?” Clinton asked supporters after the event. “I sure do. We had a great debate.”
Trump, 70, declared himself the winner to reporters at the debate site, then opted against a visit to a local debate watch party that his staff had left open as a possibility.
The 68-year-old Clinton relentlessly sought to raise questions about her opponent’s temperament, business acumen and knowledge.
Trump used much of his time to argue the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state had achieved little in public life and wants to pursue policies begun by President Barack Obama that have failed to repair a shattered middle class, with jobs lost to outsourcing and over-regulation.
Trump suggested her disavowal of a trade deal with Asian countries was insincere. Her handling of a nuclear deal with Iran and Islamic State militancy were disasters, he argued.
In one of their more heated exchanges, Clinton accused Trump of promulgating a “racist lie” by suggesting Obama, the first U.S. African-American president, was not born in the United States.
The president, who was born in Hawaii, released a long-form birth certificate in 2011 to put the issue to rest. Only this month did Trump say publicly that he believed Obama was U.S.-born.
“He (Trump) has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen. There was absolutely no evidence for it. But he persisted. He persisted year after year,” Clinton said.
Trump repeated his false accusation that Clinton’s failed 2008 presidential campaign against Obama had initiated the so-called “birther” issue.
“Nobody was pressing it, nobody was caring much about it … I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate and I think I did a good job,” Trump said.
Clinton charged that Trump had discriminated against blacks as a landlord in New York in the 1970s. “He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior,” she said.
Trump responded by casting Clinton as a hypocrite. “When you try to act holier than thou, it really doesn’t work,” he said.
Trying to get under Trump’s skin and provoke a volcanic eruption, Clinton suggested Trump was refusing to release his tax returns to avoid showing Americans he paid next to nothing in federal taxes or that he is not as wealthy as he says he is.
“It must be something really important, even terrible, that he’s trying to hide,” she said.
Trump fought back, saying that as a businessman, paying low taxes was important.
“That makes me smart,” Trump said.
“I have a tremendous income,” he said at one point, adding that it was about time that someone running the country knew something about money.
He said he would release his tax returns, although with conditions connected to the emails that are missing from Clinton’s personal server when she was secretary of state.
“I will release my tax returns against my lawyer’s wishes when she releases her 33,000 emails that have been deleted,” Trump said.
Trump sniffed loudly at points — a campaign aide said the candidate had no cold — but largely contained himself. He said he would release his tax documents after a government audit.
But Clinton, the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party, seemed to pique Trump’s ire when she brought up Trump’s past insults about women.
“He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them and he called this one ‘Miss Piggy’ and then he called her ‘Miss Housekeeping,’ ” she said.
During the debate Trump darkly hinted at wanting to stay something but stopped short. Afterwards he told reporters he had thought of raising the sex scandal involving Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, who was in the audience with their daughter Chelsea.
“I was going to say something extremely tough to Hillary and her family and I said I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate, it’s not nice,” he said.
Clinton wore a red pantsuit, and Trump wore a dark suit and a blue tie to the encounter. She called him Donald. He avoided his campaign trail name for her, “Crooked Hillary,” and instead called her Secretary Clinton for much of the debate before switching to her first name.
Toward the end of the debate, Trump said Clinton did not have the endurance to be president but avoided mentioning her bout this month with pneumonia.
“She doesn’t have the look, she doesn’t have the stamina,” he said.
Clinton retorted: “As soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents … or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina.”
As he has on numerous occasions before, Trump targeted the Federal Reserve and warned that the central bank’s policy of keeping interest rates low was politically motivated and sustaining artificial highs in the stock market. It’s a claim Fed Chair Janet Yellen has repeatedly denied.
“The Fed is being more political as Secretary Clinton,” Trump said.
“We are in a big fat ugly bubble and we better be awfully careful,” Trump said. “And we have a Fed that’s doing political things. Janet Yellen of the Fed, the Fed is doing political things by keeping interest rates at this level.”
Trump lashed out at trade with China and Mexico as he has throughout the campaign. He said the U.S. was being put at a disadvantage. China, he said, is “using our country as a piggy bank.”
Clinton responded that Trump’s economic plan is the “most extreme version” of standard Republican rhetoric. “I call it trumped up trickle-down.”
For his part, Trump went after Clinton for her past support of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “You called it the gold standard of trade deals,” he said, recalling Clinton’s initial analysis of the TPP accord.
“Donald, I know you live in your own reality,” Clinton responded.
“You are going to drive business out,” Trump said. “I will bring back jobs. You can’t bring back jobs.”
At one point, Clinton said, “I have a feeling that by the end of the debate I’m going to be blamed for everything.”
“Why not?” Trump shot back.
In the audience former President Clinton and Trump’s wife, Melania, shook hands before they were seated. Moderator Lester Holt, of NBC News admonished the audience to refrain from cheering or clapping during the 90-minute session.
Heading into the debate, Trump and Clinton are tied at 46 percent in a head-to-head contest among likely voters, according to the latest Bloomberg Politics national poll. Trump gets 43 percent to Clinton’s 41 percent when third-party candidates are included.
The uncertainty about the election outcome and soft support for both candidates raise the stakes for the debate, the first of three scheduled, said Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates. Viewers will be watching for revealing moments about Trump’s temperament and depth of knowledge on issues and whether Clinton can convey trustworthiness that surveys suggest many voters doubt, he said.
“I think it’s going to have a bigger effect probably than any debate we’ve had in a long, long time,” Fahrenkopf said.
A third of registered voters said the debates will be important to their decision in the presidential race, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted Sept. 16-19.
With the partisan lines hardening as the election draws closer, Clinton and Trump are looking to appeal to a segment of voters, between 3 and 10 percent depending on the poll, who say they are undecided between the two candidates. In a race as tight as this one, a movement of a few percentage points in that group to one candidate or the other could mean a margin of victory.
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