From the beginning of the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump has faced a nagging question: Does he have the right temperament to be commander-in-chief?
He's brash, he's entertaining, he's thin-skinned – none of which disqualify him, in the eyes of many voters, from sitting in the big chair and making the big decisions. But on Monday night, the Republican presidential nominee faced the toughest test yet in his highly anticipated first debate against Democrat Hillary Clinton: Could he go toe-to-toe against an experienced political debater and come across as a plausible president?
The bar was low, and Trump began the debate strongly. The billionaire scored points against Clinton on the economy, jobs, and trade. "We're losing our good jobs," Trump said, reinforcing a theme that has propelled him to a commanding lead among non-college-educated white men – and a virtual tie in the overall race.
Overnight polls showed Clinton as the "winner" of the debate, but post-debate polls can be fleeting and don't predict the ultimate outcome of a presidential race.
"It was a fiery debate that won't move a lot of votes," says Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "So all eyes will be focused on the second debate. Remember, voters are grading the candidates differently. Trump has the momentum in the polls, and therefore he just has to be plausible in the Oval Office. Which he was."
Still, he acknowledges that Clinton scored points, noting how she put Trump on the defensive about his refusal to release his tax returns and on "birtherism" – Trump's longtime questioning of whether President Obama was born in the United States, which he only recently said was a settled issue.
"The good news for Trump is that he went toe-to-toe with Secretary Clinton on the debate stage, which elevated his legitimacy as a candidate – something especially crucial when you are the challenger party candidate," Mr. O'Connell said. "As we move on to the second debate, look for both candidates to tweak their tactics – particularly Trump."