An ebullient Hillary Clinton reveled Tuesday in the strong reviews for her performance in the first general election debate of 2016, while rival Donald Trump kept the previous night’s controversies alive and suggested he might “hit her harder” in their next encounter by raising the subject of former President Bill Clinton’s infidelities.
“I really eased up because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” Trump said on Fox News, saying he would have brought up “the many affairs that Bill Clinton had” but held back because the Clintons’ daughter Chelsea was in the audience.
“I didn’t think it was worth the shot,” he said. “I didn’t think it was nice.”
The GOP nominee sought to cast the night as a win, but he kicked off the day by wading right back into the provocative episodes that his Democratic rival used against him in their first face-to-face encounter.
Trump took new jabs at a former Miss Universe about her weight and complained that his microphone had malfunctioned, keeping the focus on his defensive performance during Monday’s event at Hofstra University on Long Island.
Clinton, meanwhile, stuck to her script, saying Trump expressed opinions during the debate that were “offensive and off-putting.”
“The real point is about temperament and fitness and qualification to hold the most important, hardest job in the world, and I think people saw last night some very clear differences between us,” the Democratic nominee told reporters on her campaign plane before flying to North Carolina.
The former secretary of state shrugged off Trump’s suggestion that he might go after her husband’s personal life.
“He can run his campaign however he chooses,” Clinton said. “I will continue to talk about what I want to do for the American people.”
The clash came at a critical juncture in the campaign. With six weeks until Election Day, and with voters in some states already starting to cast ballots, polls show Clinton’s summer lead has all but evaporated. Trump is effectively tied in many of the battleground states where Clinton had enjoyed comfortable leads.
During the 95-minute debate, the GOP contender unrelentingly blamed the nation’s chronic problems on Clinton as a “typical politician.” Yet he found himself mostly on the ropes as she denounced him for racial insensitivity, hiding potential conflicts of interest and “stiffing” those who helped build his business empire.
Trump spent much of the evening explaining himself — about his temperament, treatment of women and minorities, business practices and readiness to be commander in chief, as well as over his long perpetuation of a falsehood about Barack Obama’s birthplace to delegitimize his presidency.
Clinton sought to make those most of his stumbles, telling a crowd in Raleigh Tuesday, “He actually bragged about gaming the system to get out of paying his fair share of taxes. In fact I think there’s a strong probability he hasn’t paid federal taxes in a lot of years.
Later, she marveled that Trump had “admitted he rooted for the housing crisis” as a business opportunity.
Earlier in the day, Trump maintained that Clinton had not unnerved him. “No, not at all,” he said on Fox News. “I didn’t see it that way.”
But he allowed that he was irritated “at the end, maybe” when Clinton brought up Trump’s treatment of Alicia Machado, a woman from Venezuela who was crowned the 1996 Miss Universe at age 19.
That moment has emerged as one of the most dramatic exchanges of the night.
“He called this woman ‘Miss Piggy,’ and then he called her ‘Miss Housekeeping,’ because she is Latina,” Clinton said during the debate.
“Where did you find this?” Trump retorted. “Where did you find this?”
“Her name is Alicia Machado,” Clinton continued, “and she has become a U.S. citizen, and you can bet she’s going to vote this November.”
The next morning, Trump offered an indignant defense of how he dealt with Machado when he was a partner in the company that owned the Miss Universe pageant.
“She was the worst we ever had,” he said on Fox News’ “Fox and Friends,” adding: “She gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem.”
The Clinton campaign moved quickly to capitalize on the issue, releasing a web video featuring the beauty queen-turned-actor, who now lives in Miami Beach.
The ad features footage from the 1990s of Trump saying in an interview that Machado went from 117 or 118 pounds to 160 or 170: “So this is somebody that likes to eat.”
The campaign also arranged a conference calls for reporters with Machado, who described the election “like a bad dream.”
“I never imagined that 20 years later I would be in this position,” she said, speaking in both English and Spanish. “That I would be in this moment, watching this guy doing stupid things, stupid comments.”
Both Trump and Clinton delivered debate performances likely to please and energize their core supporters. Clinton eviscerated Trump’s character and record while championing progressive ideals. Trump directly confronted Clinton over her email scandal and general trustworthiness. Less certain was how the debate might shape the perceptions of the slivers of the electorate still up for grabs, especially college-educated white women.
Clinton poured forth with policy details and practiced catch phrases — “Trumped-up trickle down” to describe his tax plan, for instance — and tried to sow doubts about the seriousness of Trump’s proposals. She seized on his comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin to suggest that Trump does not understand the global threats the country faces.
Where Clinton was measured in her attacks, Trump was a feisty and sometimes undisciplined aggressor. He regularly interrupted Clinton, as well as the moderator, “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, and raised his voice. At times, Trump delivered rambling, heated and defensive answers.
On Tuesday, Trump said he was pleased with the points he made on immigration, trade and jobs in the first half hour of the debate. He gave his Democratic rival a “C plus” when asked to grade her performance, but declined to grade himself, saying: “I know I did better than Hillary.”
Despite his apparent sniffles throughout the night, Trump said he did not have a cold or allergies. He blamed the noises on his microphone, which he said could not be heard well in the room.
“I don’t want to believe in conspiracy theories, of course,” Trump said. “But it was much lower than hers, and it was crackling.”
Meanwhile, a beaming Clinton told reporters on her plane that she had a “great, great time.”
Before going to her seat, she turned back and fired one last jab. “Anybody who complains about the microphone ,” Clinton said with a smile, “is not having a good night.”
Later, Clinton entered a community college gymnasium in Raleigh to whoops and loud applause.
“Anybody see that debate last night?” she called out with a grin. The crowd cheered louder as Clinton, laughing, went on.
“Wooooh, yes,” she said. “One down, two to go.”
The scene was more subdued in Miami Dade College’s Koubek Center, near the Little Havana neighborhood, where Trump met Tuesday afternoon with a small group of supporters. He was scheduled to headline a rally in Melbourne, Fl., on Tuesday evening.
“We’re leading Florida right now,” he said in Miami. “And we’re doing that because of the Hispanic community to a large extent.”
The two vice presidential candidates also sought to press their cases Tuesday, with Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Clinton’s running mate, telling “CBS This Morning” that the debate showed Trump can be “easily rattled.”
“That was very, very apparent throughout the debate,” he said. “And the longer the debate went on, the more apparent that was.”
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the GOP vice presidential nominee, argued that Trump’s unpracticed style will resonate with voters.
“I think what people saw last night was Donald Trump being himself,” he said on CBS. “He was answering the questions. He was driving forward on the issues that matter most the to American people. He has his own style. Hillary Clinton brings a style of 30 years in public life. A well-scripted politician. And Donald Trump just speaks right from his mind, right from his heart.”
This was the first of three debates between Clinton and Trump sponsored by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates; the other two are Oct. 9 in St. Louis and Oct. 19 in Las Vegas. Kaine and Pence, will face off once, on Oct. 4 in Farmville, Va.
Gearan reported from Raleigh, N.C. Jenna Johnson in Hempstead, N.Y. , and Ed O’Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.