By Shane Goldmacher
September 8, 2016
Less than three weeks before the first general election debate, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shared a stage for the first time on Wednesday night — and neither appeared ready for the brightest lights of 2016 as they flashed the very liabilities that make their backers uneasy.
Clinton wobbled on style. Trump stumbled on substance.
And Republicans, who only weeks ago fretted that the presidential contest was slipping entirely from Trump’s grasp, nonetheless appeared heartened that the race has narrowed to within conceivable striking distance as the latest Real Clear Politics polling average had Clinton’s lead down to 3.1 percentage points, shrunken from a high of 7.9 percentage points on August 9.
“Now that Trump has this within the margin of error, he needs to make himself an acceptable alternative to Clinton to pull ahead,” said Scott Reed, the chief strategist of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The first debate will be the most watched political event of our lifetime and the perfect stage to make his move.”
NBC’s prime-time “commander-in-chief forum” offered a tantalizing preview of the candidates’ relative strengths and weaknesses.
Clinton, the former secretary of state, was a master of the material but still looked uncomfortable as she fielded multiple questions about her private email server and struggled to squeeze her vision for American foreign policy into clear and concise terms.
Trump projected confidence even as he avoided specifics and treaded into politically treacherous territory as he belittled American military leaders (“the generals have been reduced to rubble”), said he had a plan to defeat the Islamic State but wanted to keep it secret and seemingly developed new policy on the fly, saying that illegal immigrants who serve in the military could then stay in the United States legally. He also offered repeated praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin as a superior leader to President Obama (“He does have an 82 percent approval rating”).
But to get to the first debate in contention, Trump, who rose to political prominence chiefly as a provocateur, must avoid suffering any more self-inflicted wounds that cost him precious new cycles. Such a period of prolonged discipline that has so far eluded the Republican nominee.
“It's going better than expected,” Saul Anuzis, a longtime Republican activist and former adviser to Ted Cruz, said of Trump’s campaign. “Time is the one irreplaceable resource…so every day counts.”
For most of the day, Wednesday had the look of a productive one for Trump. He’d delivered a muscular and well-received national security speech in Philadelphia that placed squarely in the mainstream of the GOP; his campaign announced raising “about $90 million” in August between his campaign and the GOP; he lifted his longstanding blacklist of certain media organizations, including POLITICO, that constitutionalists and free-press advocates had denounced.
“Give him credit. He has somehow lowered the bar for himself below the floor. If he reads even a quasi-coherent speech without throwing up on himself he wins the day. Hillary is that bad of a candidate,” said Kevin Sheridan, a Republican strategist who worked on the Romney campaign in 2012.
Then, at the evening NBC forum, which Matt Lauer moderated at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, Trump created headlines of the unhelpful variety, including standing by an old tweet, from 2013, that read, “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”
Added Sheridan, “He goes out and defends an old tweet about women in the military and the day starts all over again.”
It’s a familiar refrain for Republicans who keep waiting for a Trump pivot, most recently praising the new discipline instilled — and teleprompters installed — under the leadership of campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and campaign CEO Stephen Bannon.
Trump campaigned in Pennsylvania and New York on Wednesday with fresh confidence as new surveys have showed him closing the gap with Clinton, even leading in some places. After excising talk of polls during his August swoon because there was so little good news to highlight, he was talking about them again.
“Two up on Hillary,” Trump boasted of the latest CNN survey at an event for the Conservative Party of New York in Manhattan earlier in the evening, as conservative activists sipped cocktails and munched on small plates of hand-carved turkey, with cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes.
It was clearly a hometown crowd. One woman proudly sported a Trump for president pin — from the year 2000
In Philadelphia, Trump rolled out many new national security specifics, announcing a 10-point plan that included growing the active Army to 540,000 soldiers, building the Navy back toward 350 ships, and an Air Force of at least 1,200 fighter jets. To do so, he said he would roll back the mandatory defense budget cuts known as the sequester, when fiscal hawks fought for in a 2011 budget deal with President Obama.
But without a teleprompter, precious little of those specifics made it into Trump’s unscripted appearance hours later with Lauer. Asked what “homework” he was doing to prepare for the Oval Office, Trump said “a lot of things” and that he has “a common sense on the various issues.”
Trump waded into sensitive terrain later when he slammed the current military brass, who are not political appointees, and suggested, under his leadership, “They’d probably be different generals, to be honest with you.”
As the nation’s former top diplomat, Clinton clearly was comfortable with the foreign-policy focus but was cast on the defensive from the start, as she was queried about her emails and then her 2003 vote for the Iraq War for the first half of her appearance. She went first, by virtue of a coin-toss that Trump’s campaign won.
Neil Newhouse, who served as Mitt Romney’s pollster, said Trump’s slips — even Trump praising Putin by saying, “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him” — may not matter given the presence he projected on stage.
“You never got the sense that Trump was on the defensive. Maybe he wasn’t as strong on substance but to his base that doesn’t seem to matter,” Newhouse said. He said the forum, the only prime-time joint event besides the debates, was still unlikely to change a significant number of voters’ minds.
“This was a foreign policy appetizer to a main event that’s on September 26th,” he said.
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