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Clinton, Trump clash over their pasts and their plans in ferocious opening debate

Illustrations+of+Hillary+Clinton+and+Donald+Trump.+%28TNS%29
Illustrations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (TNS)

Illustrations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (TNS)

Illustrations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (TNS)

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump launched into a spirited brawl Monday night as they met on stage for the first time, each jockeying for a breakout moment in their tightening race during a highly anticipated debate that often veered into sharply personal attacks.

The candidates repeatedly shouted over each other as they argued about their histories, their plans and the comments each of them has made during the presidential race.

Clinton pointed to Trump calling climate change a hoax, diminished his accomplishments in business and attacked his championing of a tax system as custom-made to help wealthy business owners like himself. She called it, “Trumped-up trickle-down economics.”

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Her efforts to needle Trump were successful in drawing an angry response from the temperamental GOP nominee, but he also repeatedly put Clinton on the defensive. He painted her as a hopeless bureaucrat who led the country into disastrous trade deals, failed to stop China and Mexico from stealing American jobs and shifted her agenda to suit her ambitions.

Not even a half-hour into the debate, Clinton was urging voters to go to her website for fact checks, warning that Trump was misleading them as he talked over her to accuse Clinton of decades of failure in leadership.

“I have a feeling by the end of this debate I am going to be blamed for everything that ever happened,” Clinton said.

“Why not?” Trump responded.

“Join the debate by saying more crazy things,” Clinton shot back.

The debate offered voters a rare moment of focus and clarity as the vastly different styles and approaches of the two nominees were on display.

Trump, who has notably stinted on detail throughout the race, is a pitch-perfect television performer. But his time onstage offered a chance to address his policy shortcomings while also posing a new challenge: Unlike debates during the Republican primary, when Trump shared time with more than a half-dozen rivals, he was alone onstage with Clinton, unable to recede to the background for long periods as he did during the GOP contest.

He responded to Clinton’s charges about his economic plans with uncharacteristically sharp policy arguments. He peppered his blunt talk about foreign governments taking advantage of the U.S. with details about value-added taxes and policy at the Federal Reserve.

But he also did not shy away from some of his more colorful lines and throughout his history in business.

When Clinton accused Trump of being “one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis” because it would help his business, Trump replied, “That’s called business.”

When Clinton accused Trump of calling climate change a hoax, Trump objected that she was mischaracterizing his past remarks, but he also launched into a blistering critique of Obama administration energy policy. He cited the bankruptcy of solar company Solyndra, which was heavily subsidized by the federal government.

“We invested in a solar company, our country, that was a disaster,” he said.

Trump deflected persistent questions about whether he would release his tax returns by claiming he was under audit, something he has repeatedly said prevented him from disclosure. Lester Holt, the moderator, pointed out that there was no prohibition on Trump releasing his tax returns during an audit.

The Republican nominee finally said he would release them, over the advice of his attorneys to keep them private, if Clinton would release 33,000 emails she deleted from the private server she used when she was secretary of state.

Clinton then went on the offensive, accusing Trump of having something to hide and suggesting a number of possibilities: He is not as wealthy as he says; he is not as charitable as he says; he has financial conflicts of interest he does not want to disclose; or he is not paying any income taxes.

“That makes me smart,” Trump said, interrupting Clinton.

Trump’s business record dominated a large portion of the debate, with Clinton eager to engage.

Trump recounted his success, including what he said was hundreds of millions of dollars in income last year, “not to be braggadocios,” he said.

Clinton pointed to his many business bankruptcies and to stories that he had stiffed contractors.

“I’m certainly relieved that my late father never did business with you,” Clinton said.

Trump said he was simply taking advantage of the laws and making sure he did not pay for substandard work.

“It’s all words. Its all sound bites,” he said, trying to build his case that Clinton was just another politician. “I built an unbelievable company.”

It was unclear whether Trump’s performance put to rest the concerns voters continue to have about how his unfiltered statements and shallow policy platform would play in the Oval Office.

This first debate of the fall general election campaign was preceded by a Super Bowl-level of hype and the audience for the 90-minute session was expected to approach that of the nation’s biggest annual television gathering, with perhaps as many as 100 million viewers tuning in.

History shows that debates tend to reinforce pre-existing perceptions rather than move a mass of voters or cause a significant number to change their minds and switch support.

Still, in a competitive contest between two candidates who evince passionately held views — both positive and negative — the prospect of a direct, face-to-face confrontation produced one of the most widely anticipated political events in memory. The event fell just over six weeks before election day Nov. 8.

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(c) 2016 Tribune Co.

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