With six weeks to go until Election Day, the unspoken secret of the 2016 campaign is that while Hillary Clinton appears to have only a frighteningly narrow lead over Donald Trump in national public-opinion polls, she is dominating where it ultimately will matter most -- in the states with the most electoral votes -- and remains the prohibitive favorite to become the first woman president.
And so the first presidential debate last night was perhaps Trump's last best opportunity to prove he was more than an intemperate, truth-fracturing windbag and Clinton's last best opportunity to seal the deal with undecided voters -- that is, people who are torn between voting for her or staying home. By these key measures, Trump made a fool of himself while Clinton cooly succeeded in making the case that her worldview makes her best qualified to lead America over the next four years.
After a stilted start reminiscent of Barack Obama's first 2012 debate against Mitt Romney, it took about 30 minutes for Clinton to peel away Trump's play-acting posture of seeming restraint as he gradually descended into his instinctive belligerence with syntactically incoherent defenses of his birtherism, refusal to release his federal tax returns, racist past and present, condescending attitude toward women in general and Clinton in particular, and in a grandly humiliating admission in the debate's closing moments, eked out a grudging acknowledgement that he would be willing to accept a Clinton victory.
Trump sniffled a lot. And he lied a lot.
Trump lied about why he hasn't released his tax returns, creating the strong impression that he doesn't paid any taxes. He lied about the crippling debt load his businesses carry. He lied about his bankruptcies. He lied about his trailblazing role in the birther movement. He lied about his support for the Iraq war. He lied about his stand on first-strike use of nuclear weapons. And he lied about the constitutionality of stop-and-frisk and then lied some more when he was called out by NBC News moderator Lester Holt, who delivered a strong if occasionally uneven performance despite the bar being set so comically low after the Matt Lauer debacle, as well as Trump's repeated attempts to talk over him.
When backed against the wall, which was often, Trump's rejoinders ranged from ridiculous Palin-esque word salads to shouts of "Not true!" across the stage to Clinton to pathetic pleas for understanding, although Clinton (probably wisely) never went for the kill while, in the words of one pundit, "crushed Trump like Vladimir Putin would."
Don't believe me on racial discrimination? Well, we settled those Justice Department lawsuits without an admission of guilt. Don't believe me on my law-and-order prescription? Well, a police union endorsed me. Don't believe me on Clinton being responsible for birtherism? Well, check with Sean Hannity. Don't believe me on my opposition to the Iraq War? Well . . . check with Sean Hannity, but everybody refuses to call him.
"It's all sound bites!" he blurted out at one point in an attempt to smear Clinton that instead boomeranged back on him.
With the exception of Clinton's umpteenth apology for her stupid email practices as secretary of state and a stumble over NAFTA, both in the opening minutes, she was increasingly on the offensive as the night wore on. She kept pouncing as Trump shouted past her, scrambled to get back on his feet and unsuccessfully tried to parlay her zingers, including her twice calling his reward-the-rich tax plan "Trumped-up trickle down economics."
The outcome should not have been a surprise, but given the vicissitudes of this presidential campaign and Trump's proclivity for hogging airtime, it was easy to forget that Clinton came into the debate the battle-hardened veteran of five one-on-one debates with no-slouch-he Bernie Sanders while Trump had not been through even one such debate as he emerged from the primaries as the worst of the Republican worst.
If there was a surprise, it is that immigration -- in some ways the defining issue of the campaign -- did not come up, although that is certain to change in the second of three debates on October 9. Then there was the dog that didn't bark: Curiously, Trump never mentioned the Affordable Care Act, ignoring perhaps the defining concern of Republicans in the last eight years.
Irony of ironies, while Trump tried to divert a question from Holt about his disparagement of Clinton's appearance into repeated shouts that she lacked "stamina, stamina, stamina," it was Trump who was unable to go the distance. And had Clinton sniffled for 90 minutes, we would never have heard the end of it.
In fact, the appearance/stamina interlude may have been Trump's low point.
"This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs," Clinton declared, telling the audience that Trump had once referred to a young Latina Miss Universe "as 'Miss Piggy' and 'Miss Housekeeping,' because she was Latina."
Clinton paused for emphasis, adding that "Donald, she has a name. Her name is Alicia Machado."
Trump freaked and furiously interrupted: "Where did you find this? Where did you find this?"
To which Clinton added in response, "She has become a U.S. citizen, and you can bet she's going to vote this November."
Apologizing for disparaging Clinton's "looks" was out for a man who never says he is sorry, so a flustered Trump instead babbled that nobody likes Rosie O'Donnell, with whom he has feuded, congratulated himself for not saying "something extremely rough to Hillary," and noted that the polls are "looking good" for him."
Oh, those polls.
Overnight polls showed that Clinton "won" the debate decisively, while focus groups were nearly unanimous in agreeing that Trump bombed, including a focus group of undecided voters in the swing state of Pennsylvania conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz who believed by a 16-5 margin that Clinton had prevailed.
Yet few minds were changed among voters who never were on the fence. Still, Trump reached his ceiling of support weeks ago, while Clinton has toiled to reassemble all of the constituent parts of the mighty Obama Coalition, an uphill struggle that has been reflected in those nail bitingly close polls that show her to be nearly as unpopular as Trump.
But it is not likely that a substantial number of the undecideds among the tens of millions of people who tuned in last night failed to notice that Trump's legendary salesmanship failed him because he was so obviously unprepared and unable to resist taking the bait Clinton dangled before him. While Clinton occasionally descended into stump speech wonkery, she not only was prepared, she was refreshingly nimble and showed much needed moments of levity.
And most importantly, she was presidential.
POLITIX UPDATE IS WRITTEN BY SHAUN MULLEN, A VETERAN JOURNALIST AND BLOGGER FOR WHOM THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN IS HIS 12th SINCE 1968. CLICK HERE FOR AN INDEX OF PREVIOUS COLUMNS.© 2015-2016 SHAUN D. MULLEN