HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The first presidential debate more than lived up to expectations, a noisy clash between two determined adversaries that produced electric moments and substantive difference. In the early stages, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump seemed evenly matched, but the longer it went on, the more she was able to score against him.
History has shown that presidential debates, for all their hype, ultimately produce few changes in the trajectory of an election. That could be the case again this year, but there’s little doubt that what took place at Hofstra University on Monday night will produce more big audiences for the final two encounters. Despite all the ground covered, there is much unfinished business.
On a night of memorable exchanges, the most arresting came when moderator Lester Holt of NBC News asked Trump about his efforts to discredit President Obama as not having been born in the United States.
Trump has falsely accused Clinton’s 2008 campaign of starting the issue and has claimed credit for forcing Obama to produce his birth certificate. A steely Clinton didn’t bother to answer the charge about her campaign’s role. Instead she responded by accusing Trump of building his political rise on the back of a ‘‘racist lie.’’
Trump was also thrown on the defensive over his business record, his failure to release his tax returns and, in the closing minutes, insulting comments he has made about women. The Republican parried as best he could and at other times effectively pressed the case that what the country needs is an outsider who would shake up Washington, rather than a career politician.
For the loyalists on each side, Clinton and Trump probably came out winners — strong in their own defense, effective in making their points, tactically skilled in skewering the other. The debate probably did more to reinforce long-held impressions of the two candidates than it did to change minds.
Rarely has debate season opened with so much at stake for both candidates — and both seemed to recognize that anything other than an all-out effort would put them at a disadvantage. Trump held nothing back, and Clinton was as aggressive as she has ever been.
Monday’s debate could hardly have come at a more suspenseful moment in the campaign, with national polls suddenly showing the race as a virtual dead heat and Clinton’s advantages in the electoral map eroding with the release of some new battleground-state surveys.
The expectation of perhaps the largest-ever audience for a presidential debate, combined with the close polls, meant that, for once, the extraordinary hype of the pre-debate hours was no overstatement.
Clinton probably made more progress than Trump in the first debate, but the ebb and flow gave him opportunities to press his case for change and for the kind of leadership he offers. Clinton no doubt missed some opportunities early in the debate to drive home her points. But Trump may have missed more.
Both will be even better prepared to deliver decisive blows when they meet in St. Louis on Oct. 9, but it is Trump who will now have more on the line.