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Clinton and Trump debate is a good time, with some weird moments

Hillary Clinton's campaign set the bar so low for Donald Trump before Monday night's presidential debate that all he had to do was show up, not drool on his tie and convince the American people he wasn't insane.

He was anything but. Trump wasn't transformed into some waterlogged Cheeto. She didn't jump on his head in deep water and drown him like a raccoon drowning a hound dog.

Trump looked presidential. Or at least presidential enough.

And with the presidential race tightening, that clearly isn't what the Clinton campaign wanted. At this presidential Mortal Kombat, watched by an estimated 100 million people, the Clinton campaign must have hoped that moderator Lester Holt would help her rip the spine out of Trump's body. Since that didn't happen, Holt may be excoriated by the high priests of journalism for his sins.

Trump had a great opportunity to hammer at her email scandal when cybersecurity was brought up. But he didn't. She'd put him on the defensive, expertly.

That said, it was a very good debate. On both sides. Yes. Both did well. Each made mistakes. And the next one will be much bloodier.

The strongest lines?

Trump ceded her vast experience in policy.

"Hillary has the experience. But it's bad experience," Trump said, again referencing "the Iran deal."

That clearly stung her badly. So badly, in fact, that she felt forced to shift, and abandon foreign policy and seek refuge in playing the gender card.

"This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs," Clinton said, glaring, also mentioning that he likes to "hang around" beauty contests.

Not exactly Lincoln-Douglas. But it followed the logic of her campaign, that criticism of her political career is sexism by another name.

Will it work? Or will it look cheap and desperate? All that depends on which echo chamber you sought out for post-debate analysis on TV.

Both candidates gave as good as they got.

Clinton was strong, she showed command of the issues, viewers could see her as president. And if the confrontation at Hofstra University were to be scored by strict debate rules, you wouldn't be wrong if you said she won.

But that's the short-term tactical view. A longer, strategic look suggests Trump demonstrated authenticity, which is his long suit in this year where the American political establishment is on trial.

Since I'm writing this minutes after the debate closed, I'm missing all the spin on TV that soothes Americans into seeing what they wanted to see.

What amazed me were the two extremely bizarre, perhaps frightening, images that were drawn in this debate: Trump's 400-pound computer hacker on a bed and Clinton's explanation of why she withdrew to her political cave the last few days.

It was in that section of the debate — covering cybersecurity — where Trump blew the opportunity to hammer her on her use of a private unsecured email server when she was secretary of state.

The hacking of the Democratic National Committee email during the Democratic convention, Trump said, could be Russia. Or it could be China. "It also could be someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds."

A 400-pound person on the bed? Please tell me there's a rational explanation for this because the first thing I thought of was "Borat." And I didn't like it.

Later, Clinton gave that hard-eyed Hillary look when Trump noted she didn't have the stamina to campaign, staying off the campaign trail while he visited several states.

"I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate," she said. "And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And that is a good thing."

Certainly it is a good thing to prepare to be president. But it was the chirpy delivery, and the hard sparkle in her eyes, that was unsettling because like Trump's "Borat" image, this one sticks in the brain forever, of Hillary pacing about at home, alone past midnight, telling herself, over and over, that she's prepared to be president.

Other than that moment, and the awkward angry play of the gender card, Clinton was extremely composed, as many of us thought she'd be. She pressed Trump on his refusal to release his federal tax returns.

"You've got to ask yourself, why won't he release his tax returns," she said. "Maybe he's not as rich as he says he is. Maybe he's not as charitable as he says he is. Or maybe he's paid nothing in federal taxes."

Trump said he'd release his tax returns if she released those 33,000 deleted emails.

Will this debate change the minds of voters? I don't think so.

We're so locked in now, angry and tribal, voting not for someone as voting against someone. Now, it's all about the twitter war and media spin, to put that killer debate sound bite in voters' heads. Clinton has several to choose from, as does Trump.

She lowered the bar for him months and months ago. And all he had to do was not explode, not take the bait and step over it neatly.

And that Trump did.

jskass@chicagotribune.com

twitter@John_Kass

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