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Opinion

Opinion: Clinton winning the post-debate as Trump sweats in his own spotlight

Donald Trump
Donald Trump vs. Steve Lopez.
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

It turns out Hillary Clinton not only won Monday’s debate, she’s winning the post-debate too. And she’s doing it without really doing much — letting Donald J. Trump have the spotlight is working for her, and here’s why.

Just about every event Trump is involved in seems eventually to be about him, and so it was with the debate Monday. Hillary Clinton maintained cool control, tossed a few verbal land mines and then waited as Trump stepped on them.

Clinton got Trump to tacitly acknowledge he didn’t pay federal taxes during at least two years exposed by tax records filed in connection with a casino application. His response: “That makes me smart,” a line still echoing in the shaking heads of less-well-heeled taxpayers, is sure to show up in ads. 

Trump once again is sucking up all the air in the room, but he’s on the defensive in forums both friendly and openly hostile.
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Clinton also brought up a federal lawsuit against the Trump family business in the 1970s over racial discrimination in renting apartments, which the family settled. Trump tried to brush the issue off, saying the suit was “brought against a lot of real estate firms,” as though making racist decisions was fine since others were doing it too. Although that turned out to be a lie – the lawsuit was specifically against the Trumps

And then there’s Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe from Venezuela who exacted the perfect vengeance against a man who once called her “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping” and sent a film crew to record her efforts to lose weight during her term as the face of the Trump-owned Miss Universe pageant. The Clinton campaign engaged in a masterful bit of gamesmanship (which the Washington Post lays out here), and Trump gave the effort extra oomph Tuesday by doubling down on his criticism of Machado’s struggle with weight.

So what have the media, and Trump, been talking about since those 90 minutes of debate? Clinton’s emails? Trade deals? ISIS? Syria, North Korea and other thorny international issues that will dominate the first part of the next president’s term?

Nope. Trump once again is sucking up all the air in the room, but he’s on the defensive in forums both friendly and openly hostile. And he’s doubled down on fat-shaming Machado, which isn’t going to help him with women, nor with Latinos who read exactly what Trump meant when he called a Latina “Miss Housekeeping.”

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No matter how the election turns out, the post-mortems will likely include that first debate and its aftermath. If Trump manages to overcome his dismal performance and still win the White House, the debate will be seen as a moment when he was on the ropes, yet managed to fight back.

But if the debate marks the point at which Clinton begins to solidify a victory – the more likely scenario – then the debate will be seen as Trump’s Waterloo.

And it’s his own doing. I was thinking on Tuesday that we in the media continue to put the spotlight on Trump, which is hard not to do since he keeps making most of the news, at times quite manipulatively.

At the conclusion of the debate he did a walk-through of the “spin room,” the space where journalists wait for campaign surrogates to try to persuade them that they didn’t hear what they had just heard, or to try to soften or sharpen points their candidates made in the back-and-forth. It’s unheard of for a major party presidential candidate to show up there in person, but Trump did, getting live play from the cable news networks – another splash of free media that Clinton didn’t receive.

Usually an overshadowed campaign would be screaming about lack of balance. But it’s hard to imagine the Clinton campaign being upset about all the coverage Trump is receiving. He is blowing up his own campaign, and the longer he does that alone in the spotlight, the happier the Clinton campaign has to be.

For all her weaknesses as a candidate – high unfavorables, a sense of distrust among voters, lingering questions about favors for Clinton Foundation donors, etc. – Trump has proven to be the far lesser candidate.

It’s hard, in fact, to think of another major party presidential candidate with his level of ineptness, and who is as unsuited as he is to lead the country. The longer he keeps proving that during his protracted turn in the spotlight, the less Clinton has to do — and the less exposed she is to scrutiny.

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In this case, out of sight, out of mind isn’t a bad place for Clinton to be.

Scott.Martelle@LATimes.com

Follow my posts and re-tweets at @smartelle on Twitter


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