WASHINGTON - Donald Trump made a gracious entrance for the first one-on-one presidential debate of his life, exchanging pleasantries with his opponent Monday and cordially referring to her as, "Secretary Clinton."
Then she began needling him.
Hillary Clinton sprinkled her presentation on middle-class economic policies with an occasional nugget of mockery: About Trump owing his economic success to $14 million he got from his dad, and his habit of stiffing bills to his workers, his refusal to release his tax returns, and evidence he paid no taxes some years.
She drew out his inner grouch.
Trump started interrupting; he referred to an old feud with the actress Rosie O'Donnell; and he downplayed old comments to shock-jock Howard Stern favouring the Iraq invasion, in a performance that produced a one-sided early reaction. Viewers told a CNN poll that Clinton won by a margin of 62 per cent to 27 per cent.
Trump responded to being chided over his taxes with a brag about not paying them: "That makes me smart," Trump said.
MORE ON MONDAY NIGHT'S DEBATE:
• Top 10 memorable moments from Clinton-Trump debate
• Tale of the tape: A look at the numbers from Trump versus Clinton
He lied when confronted with his words about global warming being a Chinese hoax: "I do not say that," he said. His own Twitter page proves otherwise. It shows repeated references to climate change as a hoax, including the following tweet: "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive."
Trump made an impossible claim during an exchange about the so-called Islamic State: "You've been fighting ISIS your entire adult life."
The debate featured a series of policy differences, which will inevitably be lost in the glare of the high-wattage personality clash:
— Trump favours a tough-on-crime approach. He pointed out a recent spike in homicides, after an era of decline. Clinton wants to end the U.S.'s era of mass-incarceration, and salutes a new federal move away from for-profit prisons.
— He wants large tax cuts, primarily for business and the wealthy. It would include an elimination of the estate tax and a larger cut for the rich than the middle class. Trump says this would stimulate the economy. Clinton said that model had previously failed, and called it "trumped-up trickle-down."
— Trump vigorously opposes trade deals. Some of his strongest moments came when he pushed Clinton on her historic inconsistencies on trade. He promised an export tax on companies that outsource jobs: "We can stop them from leaving," he said.
He cast Clinton as an opportunist on the issue — noting her previous support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, and her early work on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, before she turned against it during the election.
Clinton defended trade, in general.
With only five per cent of the global population, she said, the U.S. needs to trade with others. Facing an opponent who promises to bring back lost manufacturing jobs, Clinton spoke about creating new jobs with infrastructure spending; affordable child care; clean technology; and tax incentives for companies that share profits with employees.
"New jobs, good jobs, with rising incomes," Clinton said.
But make no mistake: the most memorable moments of this debate involved character, spurred by the on-stage presence of one of history's most colourful political characters. Interest in Trump's first general-election debate was expected to produce a potentially record television audience.
The interest was especially acute in the American capital. Crowds gathered at bars in Washington, D.C., in some cases in such large numbers that people were being turned away from packed establishments two hours before the event.
Clinton challenged her opponent over what she described as his original political sin: his "racist" insinuation a few years ago, as she called it, that President Barack Obama may have been born in Africa.
Trump said it was her 2008 primary supporters who started the whisper-campaign. Indeed, some of her supporters appear to have encouraged such talk — albeit not with the same energy as Trump, or frequency, nor did it come from the candidate herself.
Trump couldn't resist another dig at the president — who remains more popular than either 2016 candidate. He referred to Obama's frequent golf outings.
Trump's team had tried downplaying expectations Monday.
While she had crammed for weeks, including multiple debate-preparation sessions in the last couple of days, Trump's team told reporters that he hadn't practiced much because he preferred to be authentic.
Clinton referred to that.
"Yes I did (prepare)," she said.
"You know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that's a good thing."
The polls remain close. A majority show her leading nationally, albeit by mostly minuscule margins.
Late in the debate, Clinton wrapped up the racism and sexism criticisms of her opponent in one into alleged incident.
She referred to Trump calling a Latina beauty contestant, "Miss Piggy," and, "Miss Housekeeping." Trump retorted by alluding obliquely — without mentioning Bill Clinton — to the fact that he'd refrained from discussing the former president's treatment of women.
This was just after Trump claimed he has a better temperament than his opponent.
The studio audience groaned.
Afterward, few of his fans claimed he won. Some complained the moderator was tougher on him. Meanwhile, one rival was gloating. Fellow billionaire and Trump nemesis Mark Cuban revealed on CNN that he'd falsely declared a couple of days ago that he'd be sitting in the front row. Trump responded by threatening to invite Bill Clinton's ex-mistress Gennifer Flowers.
"I thought he might take the bait," Cuban told CNN.
"Hook, line and sinker."