Honours even in the first round, but a bruising US presidential election lies ahead

China was predictably the punching bag for both Trump and Clinton, but neither candidate was able to highlight particular vulnerabilities in the other

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 1:10am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 1:26am

For a world smitten with reality shows, it was inevitable that the first US presidential debate would have a big international viewership. Perhaps 100 million Americans and untold millions more elsewhere tuned in live to watch Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton verbally joust with her Republican counterpart Donald Trump, proof of the global interest in who becomes the next leader of the most powerful country.

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They took on important issues affecting their nation, although it was less those topics than a gladiatorial contest that most viewers were interested in. Political partisans scored accordingly, but who won or lost is not so important with six weeks and two more such encounters before election day.

Clinton and Trump went into the debate neck-and-neck in opinion polls. Not before has the US had such a presidential election, Clinton being the first woman contender and a seasoned politician and Trump a political outsider who is known for his flamboyance as a high-flying property developer turned reality TV show host. At stake was whether each was fit to be president; Clinton’s health had been an issue and Trump’s temperament and unstatesman-like behaviour have been under the spotlight. Supporters of each saw what they expected, although in tones more muted than on the campaign trail.

China predictably featured prominently. The effect of Chinese manufacturing and trade on the American economy has been a favoured campaign issue, particularly with Trump. In answering his first question, he accused Beijing of using the US as a “piggy bank” for development, taking jobs and business from Americans with claimed unfair tactics. Beijing is a convenient punching bag for candidates, but when in office, the realities of the relationship become apparent and the rhetoric disappears.

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Debates are a time to reveal faults and frailties, but neither candidate was able to highlight particular vulnerabilities in the other. Clinton did not come across as the humourless establishment figure Trump had sought to bring out, nor did the businessman descend into the rants that have endeared him to loyalists, but have scared centrist voters. There were no signs of the racism and sexism that he has been so often accused of. Instead, there was a respectful distance, she referring to him as Donald and he addressing her as “Secretary Clinton”.

The election is on November 8, though, and the cordiality will not last. Nothing said in the debate has not already been heard. A bruising fight lies ahead and the world will be intently watching.