CARY, N.C. — Donald Trump so captured Ron Townley’s attention as “an outsider ready to tear down the system,” just the one who might break the Washington logjam, the doer to build new airports and highways, that he was considering voting for him.
But Trump’s response Monday night when Hillary Clinton accused him of not paying a cent of federal tax left Townley appalled.
“That makes me smart,” Trump said, unapologetic and smiling, during the presidential debate, held in Hempstead, N.Y.
That comment caused a gasp in the hotel conference room where Townley and five other undecided voters in this battleground state were watching the debate.
“That’s offensive. I pay taxes,” said Townley, 52, a program director for a local council of governments.
“Another person would be in jail for that,” said Jamilla Hawkins, 33, who was sitting beside him in the Crescent conference room at the Embassy Suites in this city of 150,000 near Raleigh.
Hawkins’s mother had chided her to get off the fence and support Clinton, but the 33-year-old felt no connection to the Democratic nominee. “I just wasn’t sold on her. A lot of my friends were on the Bernie Sanders train,” she said.
But Hawkins said the debate made her appreciate Clinton more. She said she now leans toward voting for her — a feeling shared by most of the undecided voters gathered here for an informal focus group.
Polls show that the race between Clinton and Trump is deadlocked in North Carolina, a once solidly conservative state that has seesawed between Republicans and Democrats in recent years and is too tight to call for either candidate.
Many say the race will come down to undecided voters such as Townley and Hawkins — those committed to voting but not yet to a candidate. In North Carolina, the undecideds amount to about 10 percent of the electorate, according to surveys; in other parts of the country their numbers are even higher.
Most voters in this polarized election support either Trump or Clinton and couldn’t possibly consider voting for their rival. Yet there are a significant number who see attractive qualities and flaws in each of the two major-party candidates and have not yet decided whom to choose.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday showed that 17 percent of registered voters said the debate might change their minds about which candidate to support; 6 percent said there was a “good chance” the debate could do so.
The undecided voters gathered here Monday by The Washington Post were from all over the state; they were in Cary to attend a Rural Center conference, where gubernatorial and Senate candidates were among the speakers.
Each of the men and women said they had not yet found a candidate to rally around because they found fault with both. But after the debate, four of the six undecided voters said they now leaned toward Clinton after she showed mastery of the issues and appeared more presidential. A fifth voter declared himself essentially now in the Clinton’s camp: “After tonight, I think I am convinced, I will vote for Clinton,” said the Rev. Kelly Andrews, a Baptist pastor from Tarboro.
Cindy Adair said that the 90-minute debate did not help her at all. She still abhors some of the policies that Clinton has supported, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, which destroyed the textile industry that Adair grew up in.
“That’s a lie!” she said as Clinton, under attack for the trade agreement blamed for sending jobs overseas, insisted that domestic manufacturing jobs increased in the 1990s.
Clinton “looked snarky” at times, Adair said — though she did think she looked “more professional” than Trump. She said she didn’t find Clinton’s better performance surprising given that the former U.S. senator and secretary of state is a “career politician” practiced in this kind of forum.
Adair, a registered Republican, said she likes that Trump says he will reduce taxes. She thinks it is a big mistake that Clinton will continue the Affordable Care Act “and the move toward socialist health care.”
On a scale of 1 to 10, Adair said, Clinton scored a 5 and Trump a 2. By the evening’s end, she was still at a loss about whom to support on Nov. 8.
The others watching the televised debate had new problems with Trump after listening to him one-on-one for an extended time. They said he appeared racist in some of his remarks about African Americans, not as prepared and rude in his frequent interruptions of Clinton.
When Trump gloated about not paying taxes, many called it a huge mistake. Clinton accused him of hiding something by not publicly releasing his federal tax returns, and she noted that some returns seen by state authorities showed that he had paid no federal taxes.
Hawkins, 33, who works in community development, said that gave her a new view of the Republican candidate: that he is out of touch with the ordinary middle-class person who doesn’t think it’s right for the rich to not pay their share of taxes.
“He started out okay, but then after 30 minutes, he started attacking. He is inconsistent and doesn’t have the temperament,” she said.
Hawkins’s eyes widened with incredulity at Trump’s unexpected answer about the culprit behind recent cyberattacks: “It could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, okay?”
“Really?” she said, calling it childish and offensive to those with weight problems.
Hawkins’s main issue with Clinton — her difficulty relating to ordinary voters — hasn’t disappeared. But she has many more issues with Trump.
Amy Bridges, 49, who voted for President Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 — a mirror of how this state went — was troubled by Trump’s inability to keep his attention focused.
“He cannot stay on topic,” she said when Trump started talking about the Islamic State after he was asked about his call for Obama to produce his birth certificate to prove he is a natural-born citizen. “I just want you to answer the questions!” she said at another point.
Before the debate, Bridges discussed her reservations about Clinton, especially “the feeling that she was untrustworthy.” But afterward, she said: “It was far more obvious she knows her stuff. I feel a bit more comfortable with her.”
Andrews, the Baptist pastor, said he had been attracted to Trump’s business experience and his understanding that people are upset about manufacturing jobs being sent overseas. He said that his wife lost her job when a plant that made tools and drills closed. But as he listened to Trump on Monday night, he started shouting at the TV screen.
“Stop-and-frisk is unconstitutional!” he hollered. Andrews, who is African American, said that Trump’s call for the controversial policing practice to instill “law and order” would allow officers to frisk any black person.
Trump also said that African Americans and Hispanics in urban areas are “living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot,” Trump said.
Andrews found that statement ridiculous.
John York, a tech consultant, said the bottom line for him was that Trump gave few details and “showed he really doesn’t have a plan.”
“The very big highlight for me was when Hillary tried to assure the world” rattled by this election, York said. Trump talked about ripping up trade and other international agreements, while Clinton promised that the United States would honor its defense treaties and said “our word is good.”
“I think people want change, but they are not ready to flush the whole system,” he said.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.