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And The Winner Is…

A Commentary by Fran Coombs

Hyper-competent bureaucrat vs. changemaker – that’s the choice Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump laid out for Americans at their first debate.

Clinton, looking rested and, as she said, “prepared to be president,” showed her facility with details as she cited new plans to tax the wealthy, invest in the middle class and create a special prosecutor to deal with violations by our partners in international trade deals. She noted her travels and negotiating success as secretary of State to demonstrate her seriousness of purpose. At the same time, she made it clear that she would continue the Obama administration initiatives that have the economy on the grow and terrorism on the run.

Trump portrayed a different America - one that has lost countless jobs and companies to predatory trading partners, a fragile economy that is in a temporary bubble and kept artificially afloat by the Federal Reserve Board’s low interest rates, a nation in need of law and order and threatened by a terrorist enemy that he said Clinton has been fighting unsuccessfully “most of her adult life.” He questioned his opponent’s stamina for the job and said only he has the proven temperament to succeed.

We’ll find out Thursday morning in Rasmussen Reports’ latest weekly White House Watch survey if either candidate’s performance resonated more than the other’s. Trump has been edging ahead over the past couple weeks after trailing his Democratic rival since mid-July. Rasmussen Reports shows him ahead in Nevada, and other pollsters find him making significant gains in several other critical battleground states.

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A high percentage of voters say every four years that they are likely to watch the presidential debates, but most also admit that the debates don’t change their minds: They usually stay with the candidate they liked from the start. But with 18% of voters sticking with a third-party candidate or undecided just five weeks before Election Day, it’s not surprising that 51% consider the Clinton-Trump debates more important than the presidential candidate debates in previous election years.

For Trump who many of his political opponents and much of the media have portrayed as a know-nothing buffoon, the sheer fact that he was able to go head-to-head with a seasoned politician like Clinton – without heading off on angry, irrelevant tangents - was a victory of sorts. He perhaps surprised many by not responding in kind when Clinton tagged him as a racist and a sexist, a message she can be expected to pound on in the coming weeks in hopes of motivating black and women voters who so far are lukewarm to her candidacy.

For Clinton whose health has been a question mark since a videotaped collapse on 9/11, her vigorous, clear-eyed performance was a big win. But still lacking is the human element in her policy proposals, that sense of  “feeling your pain” that her husband was so good at on the campaign trail.

Voters fully expect debate moderators to favor the Democratic candidate, so no one will be surprised that NBC’s Lester Holt spent far more time last night on the non-existent controversy over President Obama’s birth certificate than over Clinton’s near-indictment for mishandling classified information through a private e-mail server. In fact, if Trump hadn’t raised the e-mail issue, one wonders if it would even have come up.

Rasmussen Reports polling generally finds that Trump has the issue advantage. Voters don’t want more government. They’re suspicious of free trade deals and want to see them renegotiated. Illegal immigration which was scarcely mentioned last night and domestic terrorism are major concerns. Voters like the job their local cops are doing and think only Trump is on their side.

Clinton, in many ways, offers a continuation and in some cases an expansion of current federal government policies at a time when nearly 70% of voters are angry at those policies. Only 28% think the country is headed in the right direction.

But presidential elections often turn on intangibles – charisma, appearance, fear, optimism, job security, the size of your paycheck, you name it. Which candidate appears more presidential? Which one has the fire in their belly to tackle the tough issues facing the nation? A lot of times it’s just a matter of voter turnout.

Many in the media will probably declare Clinton the winner of last night’s first debate, but many voters will suspect that those articles were written long in advance and tune them out. The polls should tell us very quickly who the winner really is.

Fran Coombs is the managing editor of Rasmussen Reports.

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See Other Commentaries by Fran Coombs  .

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports. Comments about this content should be directed to the author at fran.coombs@rasmussenreports.com.

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