WASHINGTON – Ann Coulter summed it up succinctly and immediately after the first presidential debate, telling WND the reason Donald Trump had won virtually all the snap polls was due to the simple fact that he proved, “He wasn’t Hitler.”
In other words, she believed Trump had appeared sufficiently presidential to dispel the establishment media narrative that he is unhinged and unfit to be commander in chief.
And that may have been enough, because a funny thing happened on the way to the debate. The way it unfolded, the candidates appeared to swap roles: Trump seemed to become the de facto frontrunner and Hillary Clinton, the underdog challenger. Commentators seemed somewhat stunned to see her become the primary aggressor.
The switch could be due to the latest polls showing Trump either in the lead or gaining ground on Clinton so rapidly that, if he is not already the frontrunner, he soon may be.
In fact, Nate Silver’s highly respected polling website FiveThirtyEight reported on the eve of Monday’s debate that Trump would win the election if it were held today. Silver even gave Trump a whopping 10-point edge.
And the role-reversal played out in the debate, with Trump primarily on the defensive, holding his ground, while Clinton went on the attack, trying to pick up ground.
Part of that could have been due to a moderator also on the attack against Trump. NBC’s Lester Holt went after the Republican with six follow-up questions, while never once doing the same to Clinton.
Holt relentlessly grilled Trump about releasing his taxes (which the candidate said his attorneys had advised him not to do while under audit) while never once raising key issues potentially damaging to Clinton:
- Her email scandal
- The Clinton Foundation
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That did not go unnoticed by pundits. Coulter expressed her frustration with Holt, tweeting during the debate:
“We’re importing jihadists, jobs are gone, wages flat for 30 yrs, our borders are gone & LESTER HOLT IS WASTING 10 MINUTES ON TRUMP’S TAXES”
“OH MY GOSH – TRUMP TRIES TO BRING THE DEBATE BACK TO IMMIGRATION & JOBS — BUT HOLT WON’T MOVE OFF THE BIRTHER THING! (Started by Hillary)”
“So great that Lester isn’t wasting time on trivial issues like immigrants accepting welfare, taking jobs, killing Americans.”
Despite all of that, most of the instant polls showed Trump winning convincingly.
With what is considered to be a largely conservative readership, it is perhaps not surprising that the Drudge Report poll had Trump winning by the overwhelming tally of 82 percent to 18 percent.
But Time Magazine, with a readership considered anything but conservative, had Trump winning 55 percent to 45 percent, a margin that would be a landslide in a general election.
Perhaps even more surprising, the very left-leaning Slate had the identical result, with Trump winning by 55 percent to 45 percent.
Even ultra-leftist filmmaker Michael Moore was despondent, calling Trump the winner of the debate.
“It’s over. Trump, the egoist, the racist, the narcissist, the liar, ‘won.’ We all lost. His numbers will go up. She told the truth. So what.”
In fact, Moore thinks the race is all-but-lost for Democrats, adding:
“Pro-Hillary gloaters doing end-zone dance again when still on 50-yd line. U MUST get it in your head TRUMP IS GONNA WIN and act accordingly!”
While Clinton did win a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll by 41 to 35 percent, the real outlier was the CNN poll, the only national poll that showed Clinton winning by a big margin.
Perhaps it signifies CNN’s viewership has moved overwhelmingly to the left, or perhaps the network used different criteria than any other news organization, but its poll showed Clinton winning 62 percent to 27 percent.
However, as a news organization, CNN did not exactly appear to be in Trump’s corner. The morning after the debate, the headlines on CNN’s website read:
Whether Trump won or lost the debate battle, he may have won the war by merely looking presidential, considered a key hurdle by supporters and detractors alike.
Weekly columnist James S. Robbins wrote in USA Today, “You can’t fact check leadership, and tonight Donald Trump showed himself a leader.”
He added, “Donald Trump did not self-destruct, he did not make foolish statements (whether you agree with him or not), he gave as well as he got. And despite Clinton’s numerous mocking remarks to the contrary, he came off as presidential.”
Robbins also noted, “Like Reagan in 1980, viewers saw a Trump who was better than the liberal talking points.”
PJ Media co-founder Roger L. Simon had a somewhat similar take, remarking, “[B]eing a good pundit, I will say the painfully obvious. Both candidates basically got what they wanted. Hillary didn’t have a coughing fit or fall over. Donald seemed plausibly presidential. He didn’t assault Clinton or bite her head off (not that she didn’t deserve it).”
Simon was surprised Trump did not go after Clinton on the volatile topics Holt failed to raise. But he saw a sliver lining.
“Was this deliberate or an oversight? If the former, and I suspect it largely is, it’s a clever strategy,” Simon mused.
“Everyone knows about Hillary’s email/Foundation veracity issues,” he continued. “Trump didn’t have to make a big deal about them, especially if his goal was to appear presidential, to not seem crazy or mean to those few remaining independent voters who are not attracted to Hillary but want to be reassured about Trump. And we have to remember, the polls at this moment show him practically even or ahead and surging, a great position.”
One other detail from the debate points to the possibility that Trump is now playing his cards as the frontrunner. Something he, uncharacteristically, did not do: Attack a sitting duck.
When Clinton accused him of making a litany of derogatory statements abut women, Trump chose not to fight back by raising her husband’s checkered past and her relentless defense of the former president’s indiscretions.
The morning after the debate, Trump explained to Fox News why he took the high road and did not retort with a mention of Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton’s other women.
Trump said, “When she hit me at the end with the women, I was going to hit her with her husband’s women, and I decided I shouldn’t do it because her daughter was in the room.”
“I didn’t feel comfortable doing it with Chelsea in the room. I think Chelsea is a fine young lady,” Trump added.
The New York Post reported that Trump supporter and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said the GOP candidate had planned to attack Clinton as a “phony as a feminist.”
“Why?” Giuliani asked rhetorically, “Because you take money from countries that stone women, you take money from countries that imprison women, you take money from countries where women can’t drive, you take money – not money – millions and hundreds of millions of dollars – [from countries] that treat women as chattel.”
He continued, “You attacked Monica Lewinsky and said she was basically insane when it turned out your husband had violated an intern in the Oval Office of the White House, disgraced the United States of America. And you were one of the primary attackers. And, after your years with Bill Clinton, if you didn’t know that Monica Lewinsky was telling the truth, then you’re not smart enough to be president.”
Trump supporter and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich praised Trump’s restraint, saying, “I think that might have been the best single moment of the entire debate.”
He told Fox News’ Sean Hannity, “Hillary was mean, nasty, personal, knew it was a cheap shot, knew it was coming at the end of the debate, deliberately tried to crowd him. He had a perfect moment there to clobber her. And he looked over at Chelsea and thought, ‘You know, I’m not going to do it.’
Gingrich added, “[I]t showed that, unlike Hillary Clinton, for whom nothing is too mean or despicable, he was actually willing to set a standard of being decent. And I’m very proud of him.”
By taking the high road, and by not taking what Hannity called a “wide-open” shot at Clinton, Trump may have defied establishment media expectations and caricatures. In the GOP primary debates, the eventual Republican nominee rarely passed up an opportunity to forcefully return fire at what he considered a cheap shot.
Instead, Trump, for whatever reason, turned the other cheek this time. And the next morning, pundits were calling him “presidential.”