Strategists weigh in on first-debate takeaways

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Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton shake hands at the end of their first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. Picture taken September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTSPO4Z

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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to get some post-debate reaction from both the campaigns, we hear from two top political strategists, starting with the Republican National Committee’s Sean Spicer.

Sean, welcome back to the “NewsHour.”

So, what’s your assessment of last night? How did Mr. Trump do?

SEAN SPICER, Chief Strategist, Republican National Committee: Thanks, Judy.

I think he really was able to make that contrast with Hillary Clinton. Last night, Donald Trump had an opportunity to present — to become that candidate of change and present himself as that, whereas Hillary Clinton was the campaign — the candidate of the establishment and the status quo.

If you were looking for a candidate that’s going to bring change to Washington, I think Donald Trump showed you last night that he’s your candidate. If you’re ready for more of the same, I think Hillary Clinton made the case that she’s been in Washington for 30 years, and she can continue to deliver more of the same.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the things he tweeted last night was — and I’m quoting — “Nothing on e-mails, nothing on the corrupt Clinton Foundation, and nothing on Benghazi.”

Some of his supporters are saying today that he should have brought these things up, and he missed these opportunities.

SEAN SPICER: Well, you’re always going to go back after a debate and figure where you could have probably gotten some points, additional points in or where you probably could have defended your record better.

I think there is no situation in which you wouldn’t do that. But I think for the — when you look at the overall tone and tenor of the debate, it was one after another against Donald Trump. There was no follow-up on Hillary Clinton and nothing about her record with respect to the Clinton Foundation, nothing about Benghazi, nothing about immigration, nothing against all the issues that were against them.

You know, for all the whining they did the day before about the media’s role in this, I think they definitely got their way. All of the questions seemed focused on Donald Trump. All of the follow-ups and the interruptions were against Donald Trump.

She basically got a pass last night, but it is what it is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying the moderating was unfair?

SEAN SPICER: No, I mean, I don’t — it’s not a question of fair or unfair. Those are the facts. Those are what they are.

She was never interrupted once and she was never asked about key scandals and issues concerning her record. Those aren’t — I’m not here to complain. I’m just here to make sure that everyone understands what happened last night.

Donald Trump had a full vetting of his record, and she was basically given a pass on the issues of substance that matter to voters where there’s been a lot of concern on her record.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you about something she brought up, and that was — or that he was asked about by Lester Holt, and that was his income taxes.

Hillary Clinton said the few years that his forms have been made public, he didn’t pay federal income tax. And his answer was, “That makes me smart.”

Do you think that’s a good message to send to the American people?

SEAN SPICER: Well, first, I think most Americans are sitting back there saying, I want his accountant.

You know, no one sits back to try to figure it out, how to pay more taxes. We all pay a ton of taxes, whether it’s sales taxes, utility taxes. But the fact of the matter is, she was there trying to get at him.

What she wanted to do was to avoid and pivot away from talking about the fact that Donald Trump’s taxes, no matter what he pay, didn’t hurt anybody, didn’t compromise national security. The secret server that she had and the ability that — or the classified information that she took off of her secret server and e-mailed around potentially could have threatened national security. Other countries could have gotten it.

And she was doing everything she could to pivot away from having to talk about her own record.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you about something else.

Going into this et, the Trump campaign was saying that they — among other things, they clearly wanted to add in, bring in new voters, minorities, women. And then you had this series of comments about what Donald Trump has said in the past about the former Miss Universe.

Hillary Clinton raised it last night. She said Donald Trump had called Alicia Machado Miss Piggy. Today, Donald Trump spoke about that and said that Ms. Machado had — quote — “gained a massive amount of weight, and that was a problem.”

Is this something you think he should be expanding on, talking about?

SEAN SPICER: Well, look, I mean, he didn’t bring this up. She did. Lester Holt did. She did.

They went into this. Donald Trump, as you said, went in talking about how to make America great again, how to bring jobs, how to change the regulatory system to allow people to have better lives and make more money, how to provide better for their family, how to lift all people up in America.

I mean, that’s what he was doing last night. He was talking about policies and solutions to make the country better. She was digging up 20-year-old comments and quotes out of context and saying, this is what’s happening.

So, I mean, let’s be honest about who was doing what. It was Hillary Clinton who should have been there talking about her record as secretary of state and two terms in the Senate and 30 years in Washington.

Instead of doing that, she was digging up quotes. You have got to wonder, if you have that kind of a resume and that few of accomplishments, that really tells you where you are in this race.

Donald Trump was the candidate that was there talking about solutions and policies last night, not Hillary Clinton.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, he said going into this debate, really, in a way, took pride in the fact that he didn’t prepare a great deal. Do you think that’s the right approach for the next debate?

SEAN SPICER: Well, first of all, he didn’t say that. He didn’t prepare, in the sense that — in the traditional sense of standing at podiums going back and forth, but he was clearly preparing.

He spent a lot of time with senior advisers and economic advisers going over key policies and honing in stuff. He was largely successful at that. You look at the online polls that came out, the CNBC poll, the “TIME” poll — 1.4 million people weighed in on the “TIME” poll.

He was the clear winner. The CNBC poll, almost a million people all favoring him. We took in $14 million in the past 24 hours, mostly in low dollars.

What that tells you is that his message of change is resonating. And that is what mostly matters is, are people hearing what he’s saying and want to be part of this team and cast their vote for him in November? And I think the evidence was pretty clear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we know that online polls are not necessarily scientific. People can answer them multiple times.

But we hear what you’re saying, and we certainly hear you say that you have raised some money.

Sean Spicer with the RNC, we thank you.

SEAN SPICER: Thanks, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now we turn to the Democrats.

Joining me is President Obama’s 2008 campaign manager and now Hillary Clinton supporter David Plouffe.

David, welcome back to the program.

What’s your assessment of last night?

DAVID PLOUFFE, Former Obama Campaign Manager: Well, I think the first debate was probably the most important moment for the rest of the campaign.

And I think Hillary Clinton seized that moment. Donald Trump — I think Donald Trump had a good first 10 or 15 minutes, and then he kind of lost his way and became unhinged.

So, I believe Hillary Clinton’s got an edge in the race, so, given that, the fact that Donald Trump squandered the moment. And it wasn’t just that he performed badly.

Hey, we had a bad debate in 2012, the first one. So, I have been through both good and bad. But we were in the lead, and Barack Obama just had a bad performance. He didn’t have a lot of bad moments.

Donald Trump saying he was smart not to pay taxes, really bragging about the fact that he exploited loopholes not to pay his contractors, taking advantage of the housing crisis, and then I think this Alicia Machado incident that he doubled down on today is going to live on in the campaign.

So, it’s not just that he had a bad night last night. I think he’s going to have bad few days here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, at the same time, he did continue the argument that he’s the change the country needs and that politicians like Hillary Clinton, who he said have been in office 30, 35 years, have messed things up and the country needs somebody new. Did she have a good answer for that, do you think?

DAVID PLOUFFE: I think she did. And I’m sure that will come up again in Saint Louis. And I will leave it to Hillary Clinton to show how she’s going to advance that ball.

But I think part of it is, OK, Donald Trump is change, but he’s dangerous change. I mean, listen, I worked in the White House, Judy. I obviously support Hillary Clinton, but I can’t fathom someone of that temperament and that decision-making and what we saw last night.

I mean, we have never seen a major party nominee be so substance-less, be confused. You know, I mean, Mitt Romney, John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore, these were serious people. And so, again, I think that’s going to be a difference in this race.

I think he has a ceiling. I have always thought his ceiling on his vote was quite a bit lower than Hillary Clinton’s. I think she’s got more vote to gain of what’s left out there. And I really don’t — I don’t think he lost any votes last night. And I’m sure Trump partisans loved what he had to say.

But I don’t think he added. And I think he’s in a position in this race where he needs to add quite a bit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Hillary Clinton is getting some good reviews.

But even some Democratic commentators are saying she didn’t have the best answer on some of the issues that resonate most with voters, like jobs that are leaving this country to go elsewhere because of trade, like the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, like NAFTA. What else could she have said, do you think, to improve her answer on that?

DAVID PLOUFFE: Well, what she spoke was the truth.

So, she said there are some trade deals she supports, and here’s the criteria. So, there’s no doubt that Trump has used trade to gain some support. I think he’s probably gotten all he’s going to get from that issue. But I’m sure we will talk about this in Saint Louis with him.

And so I think she’s got to say, A, here’s my view on trade, and, B, what I think she did do a good job of is saying Trump’s ideas on taxes, on the economy would actually cost us millions of jobs and blow up the deficit.

I mean, he’s not offering anything new. But it’s worse than what Romney was offering. It’s worse than what McCain was offering. And we had great success on both of those things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also hear, David Plouffe, you also hear Democrats saying that they wish she had a crisp answer on why she should be elected president, that she often tends to say when asked about one issue or another, she gives a number of items in a list, and she will say, this is my plan or this is my platform.

Do you think that’s a challenge for her?

DAVID PLOUFFE: Well, I spoke about this before the debate.

I think what I would like to see more of, for sure, is no one doubts her head. People might not agree with everything she’s got, but she’s got a great grasp of politics — to, really, from the heart and from the gut, talk about why she’s running, why this race, why her at this moment, and on whose behalf.

And the town hall debate is a great place, obviously, because you’re having a conversation with your fellow citizens to do that. So, yes, I think the moments where she has talked about those types of things, that she doesn’t want anybody to have to struggles that her mom did.

Now, I think she talked very passionately about her father and the lessons she learned there last night. That was effective. The more we see of that, I think the better off these next five-and-a-half weeks will be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You started out, David Plouffe, by saying you thought this first debate would be the most watched. Are you saying we really aren’t going to have any more sort of pivotal moments in this campaign for the next six weeks?

DAVID PLOUFFE: Well, so, here’s what I would say.

There are two more pivotal moments we know about, the two presidential — the V.P. debate is important, but it’s rarely been something that really moves the ball. But it’s important, and I’m sure Tim Kaine will do a good job, and Pence will try and do a good job for Trump.

The two presidential campaigns, the campaign itself, meaning, you know, where the candidates are going, are they turning out the right kind of vote, are they persuading voters, what kind of ground operation, and then obviously the unforeseen event.

But I think, unlike ’12, when we lost the first debate, we were in the lead. So, that’s a difference, because I think Clinton is in the lead. And, again, secondly, I don’t think Obama — it was just a bad performance. We prepared him poorly. He didn’t perform well. Romney performed well.

But there was no one moment. It was just a bad, flat performance. So, I think that Trump lost a big opportunity last night. The TV ratings were over 80 million. My suspicion is, if you aggregate everyone who watched it together with people in homes, at bars, on their phones, it’s goings to be close to 100.

So, I don’t know. Maybe the next one. Trump may be must-see TV, and the next two will be important, but he has got to really, really dominate the next two debates in a way that swing voters say, OK, Trump is now the one I’m leaning towards.

And I just — I don’t think he’s got that in him, by the way. I don’t see a president when I look at Donald Trump. But we will see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Plouffe, we thank you.

DAVID PLOUFFE: Thanks, Judy.

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