WHITE PLAINS, United States (AFP) - Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton jumped back onto the campaign trail Tuesday (Sept 27) after a bitter first head-to-head debate in which Clinton frequently forced her prickly opponent on to the back foot.
The White House hopefuls sparred over temperament, stamina, judgment, and other issues in a televised match-up Monday night that seemed to have gone in favour of the Democrat Clinton.
In a snap CNN poll of 521 voters, 62 per cent judged that Clinton had won the debate against 27 per cent for Trump, with most mainstream political analysts agreeing Clinton was the stronger performer.
But in a campaign that has consistently defied predictions from the political establishment, few can forecast for sure the impact on how America will vote on Nov 8.
Nate Silver, a respected election analyst at FiveThirtyEight.com, predicted a two to four per cent bump in support for Clinton, after the most recent polls showed the race in a virtual dead heat.
With six weeks until election day, Clinton was scheduled to rally in battleground North Carolina on Tuesday, while Trump was to speak to supporters in the swing state of Florida.
During the debate at New York's Hofstra University, with an anticipated audience of up to 100 million, Clinton repeatedly questioned her rival's fitness to serve in the Oval Office.
She painted the celebrity real estate mogul as fatally out of touch and willing to say "crazy things" to get elected.
"You live in your own reality," said the 68-year-old Democrat, who sought to project her steady experience.
Trump played the populist bruiser, pitching to frustrated blue-collar voters fed up with establishment politicians.
"Let me tell you, Hillary has experience. But it's bad, bad experience," quipped the 70-year-old billionaire, accusing the former secretary of state, first lady and US senator of being a "typical politician. All talk, no action. Sounds good, doesn't work."
As the temperature rose, Trump brought out the verbal brickbats, repeatedly interrupting Clinton and even questioning her stamina after a bout of pneumonia. He appeared increasingly irritated, at one point rolling his eyes and emitting a frustrated "ugh."
"A lot of Americans will look at tonight's debate and see an individual who is prepared to become president of the United States, and she was up against an impostor," said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"You saw not a perfect performance by Hillary Clinton, but as much as an imperfect performance as you can imagine by her opponent," he told AFP.
"The unique part of a presidential debate is that you don't have to excel. You just have to do better than the only other person on stage." Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University, also praised Clinton's performance.
However, he said, "Trump more than held his own with an informal and often unorganised 'speech salad' where he mixed things in odd ways but often with humour, and cleverly."
Meanwhile, financial markets seemed reassured that Clinton appeared to emerge as winner. Asian stock markets and high-risk currencies staged a "relief rally" on Tuesday.
Trump gave an upbeat assessment of his debate outing, telling AFP: "I thought it went very well for me."
Clinton visited supporters who had attended a debate watch party in Westbury, New York, telling the crowd, "Do you feel good tonight? Well, I sure do... We had a great debate."
Clinton's brightest moments came when debate turned to foreign policy, while Trump's came when he tapped into malaise about politics and the economy.
Trump squarely blamed Clinton and the political class for losing jobs to Mexico and China through what he termed bad trade deals and incompetence.
Clinton tried to undercut Trump's CEO-in-chief acumen by accusing him of having "stiffed" small business contractors throughout his business career.
She demanded Trump release his tax returns, suggesting he may be lying about his much-vaunted wealth, his charitable donations, his tax bill or his ties with foreign benefactors.
Trump fired back that he would release his tax returns, "when she releases her 33,000 e-mails that have been deleted," alluding to the Democrat's use of a private email server as secretary of state.
Clinton has a massive organisational advantage, a bigger campaign war chest and a lead in the popular vote and is in a notably stronger position state-by-state.
But Trump weathered allegations of bigotry and sexism to triumph in a vicious Republican primary campaign, and now has a real shot at being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on January 20.
There are two more debates in the 2016 US presidential race, which could be pivotal in deciding whether Clinton will become the first woman president, or if Trump can pull off the greatest upset in US political history.