She won the debate, but he helped his campaign.
There were no knockouts, and fewer punches landed by Trump than the crowd expected, but both did what they needed to do.
On the debate: Clinton looked composed, relaxed, polished … perhaps too polished (note the frozen smile). That this was her 15th one-on-one debate showed. That she prepared showed … in fact she even turned that into a strength of which she was proud.
She had better one liners — “I’m prepared to be president,” “Donald you live in your own reality” — and better deflected and parried his criticisms.
She attacked him personally, whether on his taxes, or not paying people, or on the birther issue — and he spent way more time defending himself (see particularly on whether he had been against the Iraq war) than he should have, in part because he did not have pithy responses to deflate the attacks.
Trump missed opportunities to score points that he could have and should have taken: The Twitterverse groaned at the idea that Hillary with her homebrewed server and careless mishandling of classified information, was talking about cybersecurity. He should have pointed out this disconnect and reminded viewers that she’s already proven she can’t be trusted with the nation’s secrets.
And still — she didn’t make the case that she wasn’t more of the same, or that she was trustworthy, so her largest liabilities remain.
Nor did she make Trump seem dangerous. Because that was his challenge: Could he seem rational, to parry the dangerous and crazy meme? That was far more important for him than zinging her on points.
It’s why his campaign likely suggested he say that he was restraining himself from going after her — because “restraint” isn’t the first word one thinks of coming after “Trump.” It’s why he called her Madam Secretary — because “respectful” isn’t the first word one thinks of coming after “Trump.” And it was why he kept asking if she was happy, because “concerned” isn’t the first word one thinks of coming after “Trump.”
It’s also, I suspect, why he didn’t attack Clinton more. Yes he took her on somewhat, dominating the microphone with interruptions and filibusters, but just enough that his own team would think “yes, our guy.” But not so much that he would give anyone fodder for going after him.
His pitch in the first debate was not to his base. Whether with childcare, or concern for the African-American community, or striking a tone that’s a little calmer, in the first debate Trump needed to prove himself to be someone that those who aren’t yet with him could decide to support and still like themselves. So as with his recent use of teleprompters, in the debate we also got largely lower-key Trump.
He’s in it to win, and playing the long game. This was only the first debate. The expectations for him for the second debate are now quite low, and he has room for improvement, while everyone has now been reminded how good a debater Clinton is. Now all Trump needs is a good writer of presidential-caliber zingers to help him soar in rounds two and three.