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Analysis: Hillary Clinton's Studies for 2016 Debate With Donald Trump Pay Off

Hillary Clinton stayed on message, frequently forced Donald Trump off his, and made sure she had a thousand-watt smile the entire time.
Image: Trump and Clinton greet one another as they take the stage for their first debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S.
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton greet one another as they take the stage for their first debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on September 26, 2016.JONATHAN ERNST / Reuters

In a battle of preparation versus instincts, preparation won in a major way.

For weeks, Democrats worried that a newer, more disciplined, more effective Donald Trump might emerge during their first debate and benefit from low expectations to steal a win from the more experienced Hillary Clinton.

Instead, Clinton gained the upper hand early as Trump grew defensive over personal attacks, dissembled or contradicted himself on key issues, and reopened old wounds on gender and race along the way.

He sniffed and huffed his way through the debate, calling Clinton's treatment of him "not nice" and insisting of her attacks, "I don't deserve that."

Related: Six Key Moments of the First Presidential Debate

Other times he was hostile, speaking over Clinton in an attempt to dominate her the way he overpowered his male rivals in the Republican primary.

But the aggression that made him the big man on the primary debate stage made him seem small in the more sober general election format. And instead of trying to match Trump's force head-on, Clinton incited, dodged, and countered from the flank with the flair of a matador.

And it wasn't just that Trump was on defense — he also left his best material in the prep room.

He attacked her private email server only once, and didn't once mention Clinton's "basket of deplorables" comment, the Clinton Foundation, the Benghazi attack, her ties to Wall Street, her comments about coal workers losing their jobs or her comments about the Veterans Administration scandal — all of which have been key Trump attack lines.

Afterwards, Trump backers in the spin room derided Clinton's performance as canned, playing up Trump's unscripted authenticity. Spokesman Jason Miller called her "very programmed." Former "Apprentice" contestant Omarosa Manigault called Clinton "robotic and prepared." Several surrogates said she was "willing to say anything."

They had a point. It was easy to spot the seams stitching together Clinton's answers, which were clearly the product of a lot of time and research and designed to get under Trump's skin.

The coached approach was clear from her very first answer, which simultaneously served to set the stakes ("the central question in this election is really what kind of country we want to be"), connect them to her personal story ("today is my granddaughter's second birthday, so I think about this a lot"), give a litany of policy proposals designed to appeal to key demographic groups (debt free college for millennials, work-life-balance for suburban women, etc.), and draw a sharp contrast with Trump ("You have to judge us, who can shoulder the immense, awesome responsibilities of the presidency").

But her plan worked: Clinton stayed on message, frequently forced Trump off his, and made sure she had a thousand-watt smile the entire time.

Trump, by the end of the night, was left complaining to reporters about alleged problems with his microphone, which he suggested may have been sabotaged. Top surrogate Rudy Giuliani told a reporter Trump should pull out of future debates if moderators didn't agree to be more deferential.

Clinton seemed to anticipate every single one of Trump's attacks, and came armed with honed retorts. "Well Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts," she said when hit on her trade flip-flop.

And she said Trump, who questioned her "stamina,"'could do so after he "travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world, or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee."

Trump began the debate strongly enough, with solid answers on his core issues of jobs and trade. But he somehow drifted into an unprompted discussion of ISIS, leading to a strange moment in which he criticized Clinton for revealing too much about her military plans on her website.

"You're telling the enemy everything you want to do," he said. "No wonder you've been fighting ISIS your entire adult life."

Things worsened during an exchange over taxes, in which Clinton baited him with speculation that he was hiding something damaging in his unreleased returns and noted that he had not paid any federal taxes in two years that he disclosed several decades ago.

It was an exaggeration: The same report she cited also said he paid taxes in three other years. But Trump's response quickly overtook her argument.

"That makes me smart," he said.

When Clinton added he was keeping his taxes private "maybe because you haven't paid any federal income tax for a lot of years," Trump interrupted again.

"It would be squandered, too, believe me," he said.

In another notable exchange, Trump strongly defended his years-long crusade to prove President Barack Obama had lied about his birthplace, insisting he had nothing to apologize for while offering a garbled accusation that Clinton's 2008 campaign — which never publicly raised the issue — spread it in secret.

When moderator Lester Holt asked Trump what he would say to people of color offended by his actions, he responded: "I say nothing. I say nothing, because I was able to get him to produce it. He should have produced it a long time before. I say nothing."

His defiant response undermined whatever message of sincerity or contrition it hoped to achieve by having Trump acknowledge Obama's birthplace earlier this month.

On substance, Trump also tangled with Clinton over his assertion that he opposed invading Iraq in 2003 despite a lack of any public record of him doing so and a 2002 interview with Howard Stern in which he supported it.

"I did not support the war in Iraq," he said. When Holt moved to correct him, Trump derided claims to the contrary as "mainstream media nonsense put out by her." He pointed to private statements he claims he made to supporter and Fox News host Sean Hannity, arguing they should outweigh his public comments from the time.

Other claims where Trump went awry: His assertion that ISIS controls oil in Libya (they don't), his claim that the Federal Reserve kept rates low for political reasons (Trump praised the same policy in May), his denial that he called climate change a hoax (he did multiple times), and his criticism of America's withdrawal from Iraq (he publicly supported pulling out troops for years).

Trump offered a confusing response when asked about the country's current "first use" policy on nuclear weapons, which implicitly reserves the right to a preemptive strike.

Trump, who drifted to a number of unrelated topics in his answer, said "I would certainly not do first strike" before adding moments later he "can't take anything off the table."

Finally, Trump walked into a buzzsaw on gender after being asked to explain his comment that Clinton lacked a "presidential look." Trump said the comment was about her "stamina."

Clinton swooped in with a series of old quotes by Trump in which he called women "pigs, slobs, and dogs" and brought up an incident in which he criticized Miss Universe winner Alicia Machado — there in the audience —for her weight.

Trump, after first denying the quotes, called back to a moment from his very first GOP debate when moderator Megyn Kelly brought up the same remarks.

"Somebody who's been very vicious to me, Rosie O'Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her," he said.

Seemingly alluding to President Bill Clinton's infidelities — Trump brought up Gennifer Flowers on Twitter over the weekend — he added he "was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, 'I can't do it. I just can't do it. It's inappropriate. It's not nice.'"

Even that too seemed to play into the Clinton campaign's plan. "We're very worried," Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta told NBC News, "his campaign will be meeting tomorrow and say, 'what's a way we can get out of these last two debates?"

The campaigns are scheduled to meet again on Oct. 9 in St. Louis.

Trump will have a lot of time to reconsider his approach, but will have to work hard to match the preparation Clinton has clearly already put in.

In keeping with the night's theme, she even anticipated an attack on her preparation.

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