RALEIGH, N.C. — Donald Trump blamed the moderator, a bad microphone and anyone but himself Tuesday after he was forced onto defence by Hillary Clinton's cascade of critiques about his taxes, honesty and character in the first presidential debate.
The Republican nominee plunged into re-litigating some of Clinton's most damaging attacks, even when the explanations seemed only to further damage his image among the voters he needs to win. After brushing off Clinton's debate claim that he'd once shamed a former Miss Universe winner for her weight, Trump dug deeper the next morning.
"She gained a massive amount of weight. It was a real problem. We had a real problem,'' Trump told "Fox and Friends'' about the 1996 winner of the pageant he once owned.
Clinton, meanwhile, was in a celebratory mood, telling reporters on her campaign plane she had a "great, great time'' and was "thrilled'' by how it went. She accused Trump of making "demonstrably untrue'' claims in the debate and mocked him for floating the possibility that debate organizers had set him up by lowering the volume on his "terrible'' microphone so he was quieter than Clinton.
U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a town hall meeting with supporters in Miami, Fla. on Sept. 27, 2016. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
"Anybody who's complaining about the microphone is not having a good night,'' Clinton said.
Both campaigns knew the highly anticipated first debate could mark a turning point six weeks before Election Day, but it was unclear if either candidate would reap significant gains. Trump and Clinton are locked in an exceedingly close race and competing vigorously to win over undecided voters.
Though he said on Twitter he had "really enjoyed'' the debate, Trump accused moderator Lester Holt of a left-leaning performance and going harder on him than Clinton. He insisted he had "no sniffles'' and no allergies despite the #snifflegate speculation that had exploded on social media.
"Anybody who's complaining about the microphone is not having a good night.''
Still, Trump insisted he'd gotten the better of Clinton, awarding her a C-plus while declining to assign himself a grade. He also threatened to go harder after her in the next debate and said he'd planned to assail President Bill Clinton for his "many affairs'' and stopped himself solely because daughter Chelsea Clinton had been in the room.
With precious few weeks left to campaign, both candidates returned promptly to the trail, with Clinton campaigning Tuesday in North Carolina and Trump in Florida. Those are among a handful of toss-up states whose winners could help determine the outcome of the election.
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton shake hands at the end of their first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., ON Sept. 26, 2016. (Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters)
Clinton and Trump are slated to face each again on Oct. 9 in St. Louis. Asked about the possibility Trump could pull out, Clinton said she'd show up regardless.
"If I'm the only person onstage, well, you know, I'm the only person onstage,'' she said.
Trump's latest comments about Alicia Machado, the 1996 Miss Universe, were striking in that they come just as he is working to broaden his appeal among women. Aiming to capitalize on Trump's renewed focus on a woman's weight, Clinton's campaign dispatched Machado — who is backing Clinton — to tell reporters how she spent years struggling with eating disorders after being humiliated publicly by Trump.
"I never imagined then, 20 years later I would be in this position, I would be in this moment, like, watching this guy again doing stupid things and stupid comments,'' Machado said. "It's really a bad dream for me.''
Former Miss Universe Alicia Machado campaigns for Hillary Clinton on Aug. 20, 2016 in Miami, Fla. (Photo: Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)
The two candidates' first face-to-face showdown the night before was confrontational from the start, with Trump frequently trying to interrupt Clinton and speaking over her answers. Clinton was more measured and restrained, often smiling through his answers, well-aware of the television cameras capturing her reaction.
Trump tried aggressively to pin America's problems on Clinton. But the Democrat, showing her intensive preparations, went after him as hard or harder, including sharp criticism of his business practices and false assertions about President Barack Obama's birthplace, which she called part of a pattern of "racist behaviour.''
She repeatedly criticized Trump for breaking tradition by refusing to release his tax returns, declaring, "There's something he's hiding.'' When Clinton suggested his refusal might be because he possibly paid nothing in federal taxes, he interrupted to say, "That makes me smart.''
"What in the hell he is talking about?'' asked an exasperated Vice-President Joe Biden as he campaigned Tuesday for Clinton in Pennsylvania. He noted Trump had boasted of making money off the housing market's collapse.
"She's got experience... but it's bad experience.''
The centerpiece of Trump's case against Clinton is that the former senator and secretary of state is little more than a career politician who has squandered opportunities to address the domestic and international problems she's now pledging to tackle as president.
"She's got experience,'' he said, "but it's bad experience.''
When Trump made a crack about Clinton taking time off the campaign trail to prepare for the debate, she turned it into a validation of her readiness.
"I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate,'' Clinton said. "And, yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that's a good thing.''
Lederman reported from Washington. AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace and AP writer Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.