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The 2nd Debate: Hillary Stares Down a Bully

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It was the presidential debate I expected but hoped wouldn't happen. In the October 9th St. Louis debate, Donald Trump was vicious. He threw the proverbial kitchen sink at Hillary Clinton, hurling insult after insult, lie after lie. But Clinton held her ground, managed to look and act presidential, and emerged victorious.

A CNN poll found that 57 percent thought Clinton won, compared with 34 percent who thought Trump won. A similar YouGov found a smaller margin with 47 percent Clinton and 42 percent Trump.

Five things stood out in the debate: First, as in the initial presidential debate, Trump lost the battle of optics. While Clinton seemed relaxed and focused, Trump seemed agitated and angry. When Clinton spoke, Trump prowled around the stage, sometimes looming behind her. At one point, Trump appeared so menacing that my wife gasped, "He's going after her!"

Trump's appearance came on the heels of the release of his 2005 groping tape. This did not help his image with female voters. And this image was not improved by Trump's St. Louis debate performance where he came off as a stalker.

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Second, more than the first debate, this debate was tailored to appeal to Trump's base, particularly to that part that reads the far-right Breitbart News (http://www.breitbart.com/) -- where today's Trump ad was, "It's us against the world!") It's difficult to imagine that Trump's performance appealed to truly Independent voters or that it changed the minds of those Republican women who had decided to vote for Clinton (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/us/politics/donald-trump-women-hillary-clinton.html?).

Third, Trump held nothing back. In an exchange about Clinton's handling of State Department emails, Trump promised that if elected President he would appoint a special prosecutor to reinvestigate this matter. Clinton responded, "it's just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country." Trump snapped, "Because you'd be in jail."

As expected, Trump brought up Bill Clinton's infidelities -- he prefaced the debate with a Facebook press conference featuring several of the Clinton accusers. Trump refused to apologize for the just-released 2005 groping tape: "That was locker room talk." And attempted to switch the subject to the Clinton's, "I will tell you that when Hillary brings up a point like that and she talks about words that I said 11 years ago, I think it's disgraceful, and I think she should be ashamed of herself." Considering the circumstances, Hillary stayed remarkably calm, "So much of what [Donald] just said is not right, but he gets to run his campaign any way he chooses" I am reminded of what my friend, Michelle Obama, advised us all: When they go low, you go high."

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That's the theme Hillary tried to adhere to during the rest of the debate: when Trump went low, she went high.

Hillary noted that Trump still has not apologized the Gold-Star family of Captain Humayun Khan, a Muslim, who was killed in Iraq. Trump responded, "if I were president at that time, he would be alive today, because unlike her, who voted for the war without knowing what she was doing, I would not have had our people in Iraq." Even for Trump, this was remarkably insensitive. (There is substantial evidence that, before it started, Trump was not opposed to the Iraq War -- (http://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2016-09-10/ap-fact-check-trumps-false-claim-of-opposing-the-iraq-war)).

Fourth, Clinton made a strategic choice to not go after each Trump lie -- she tried to "go high." This often meant that a barrage of Trump lies went unanswered; Hillary responded with a general, "that's not true." For example, after a long riff on taxes, where Trump repeated the falsehood, "our taxes are.., about the highest in the world," Clinton responded: "Well, everything you've heard just now from Donald is not true. I'm sorry I have to keep saying this, but he lives in an alternative reality."

Therefore there will be two debates. The first occurred on the evening of October 9th and the second will occur over the next few days when fact-checkers will pour over the debate transcript and tell us how truthful the candidates were.

Initial findings from the non-partisan website, Politifact, (https://medium.com/@PolitiFact/politifacts-annotated-transcript-of-the-second-presidential-debate-b54f45edeb99#.kfcny8tjw) indicates that more than two dozen Trump assertions were inaccurate.

Fifth, scattered throughout the verbal battlefield were intriguing policy differences. One was what to do about the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, Syria. Clinton said, "I advocate today a no-fly zone and safe zones."

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At first, Trump avoided the question, turning instead to supposed Clinton foreign policy miscues. After two minutes, the moderator, Martha Raddatz, had to remind Trump of the original question. Trump said he disagreed with his running-mate, Mike Pence, who suggested if the situation deteriorates, "the [US]should be prepared to use military force to strike the military targets of the Assad regime." Raddatz asked, "What do you think will happen if Aleppo falls?" Trump replied, "I think that it basically has fallen. OK?"

In other words, Clinton wants to do something to get civilians out of Aleppo. Trump has given up on them and wants the US to partner with Russia and the Assad regime.

Summary: Before the debate, Trump's campaign was in free fall and many Republican politicians were abandoning him. The debate results ensured that Trump will limp on to the November 8th election. Trump did what he had to to energize his base. But he didn't add any new voters and at his current level of support -- about 40 percent -- he can't win.

This wasn't the knockout performance that many of us hoped Clinton would provide. Nonetheless, it was a win.

 

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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