How Hillary Can Win the First Debate

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September 20, 2016

In less than a week, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will face off in the first presidential debate, and according to a nationwide poll conducted Sept. 15-16 by Morning Consult, 73 percent of registered voters will likely be watching.

That would be about 107 million Americans if everyone tuned in, which of course is a crazy-high number. But after this grueling election cycle – for the candidates and the American public – we all can agree, as Bernie Sanders might say, a lot of people will be glued to the tube (or their smartphones or laptops, since ABC and Facebook will live-stream the debates).

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The race remains close. A new NBC News/Survey Monkey tracking polls puts the Democratic nominee ahead by 5 points (with a 1.2 margin of error), even when it’s a four-way race with Republican Trump, Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein. But the Real Clear Politics average of recent surveys shows a much tighter contest, with Clinton‘s edge over Trump at a mere 1.3 points.

Because the contest remains so close and because it is the first time Clinton and Trump will go head to head, the debate could be a defining moment. That is truer for Clinton than it is for Trump.

After decades on the front pages of New York tabloids, after years on The Apprentice, and after nonstop coverage for the past 18 months or more, America pretty much knows Donald Trump -- all 237 pounds of bluster, bravado and uncanny ability to shout out what others are silently saying in their heads.

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You would think after Clinton’s decades in the in public eye – through the tumult of the Bill Clinton presidency, through her two terms in the U.S. Senate and through her four years as Secretary of State – that we would know Hillary, too. But we don’t.

Her penchant for secrecy and political parsing of the truth has fed the persona that so many voters think they know – a dodgy phony with an insatiable ambition. But does America really know this woman who is said to be warm and funny in private? By using the debate as an opportunity to re-define who she is, Clinton will be able to better define why she is the best choice for president.

If the best way to beat a bully is to walk up and plant four knuckles in his eye, then there is certainly a case to be made for Clinton to be fierce. She can give as good as she gets – as she demonstrated in some of the debates with primary opponent Senator Bernie Sanders. And that would certainly warm the cockles of many of her women supporters who would like to see the casually misogynist Trump get his nose bloodied.

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Or she could rope a dope.

Let a red-faced Trump rant and throw wild punches while she disarms him with civility, likeability and even humor. She has to be careful not to talk down to him, mindful that her amusing line about “the deplorables” – the racists, sexists and xenophobes who are among Trump supporters – pretty much backfired.

Clinton can’t be a schoolmarm or a scold who will turn off those who call her strident when she’s being forceful. Sure, a lot of that is about being a strong woman, but being elected is the best revenge against the double standard she will have to endure to get there.

In the only presidential debate of 1980, Ronald Reagan good-naturedly disarmed Jimmy Carter with his “there you go again” line – and he did the same thing when he went up against Walter Mondale in 1984 by saying he wouldn’t hold his opponent’s “youth and inexperience” against him.   

The big question is whether this former Goldwater Girl can channel her inner Reagan.

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