Hillary Clinton puts Donald Trump on defensive in fiery first presidential debate

US Presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump make their pitches as first presidential debate opens.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton dismissed charges from rival Donald Trump who said she did not have the 'stamina' to serve as President, saying if Trump could manage her schedule, 'he can talk to me about stamina.'
Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump shakes hands with Democratic US presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at the start of their first presidential debate.
Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump shakes hands with Democratic US presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at the start of their first presidential debate. PHOTO: REUTERS
Mr Donald Trump's wife Melania greets Hillary Clinton's husband and former US president Bill Clinton at the presidential debate.
Mr Donald Trump's wife Melania greets Hillary Clinton's husband and former US president Bill Clinton at the presidential debate.PHOTO: AFP
The audience gathers ahead of the presidential debate between Mrs Hillary Clinton and Mr Donald Trump at Hofstra University on Sept 26, 2016 in Hempstead, New York.
The audience gathers ahead of the presidential debate between Mrs Hillary Clinton and Mr Donald Trump at Hofstra University on Sept 26, 2016 in Hempstead, New York. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton came out on top after a fiery first debate against her Republican opponent Donald Trump where they levelled sharp and personal charges against each other over a range of issues.

The debate at Hofstra University in New York on Monday night (Tuesday morning Singapore time) comes at a time when the race is tightening between the two candidates - particularly in battleground states such as North Carolina, Florida and Iowa - and many say the debate could determine who ends up in the White House next year. 

After a subdued start on both sides, Mr Trump turned up the heat and started interrupting and raising his voice against Mrs Clinton a number of times, hoping to achieve the upper hand. 

His first line of attack was to criticise Mrs Clinton for being at her job for "30 years" and failing to make better trade deals for America.

He then pressed on with the issue of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), pointing out that she had changed her opinion on the deal because of his stance. 

When she tried to explain that she hoped it would be a good deal but concluded that it wasn't, Mr Trump tried to corner her: "So is it President Obama's fault?" he asked three times. 

Mrs Clinton, however, remained calm and stuck to her message of creating more jobs and looking out for the middle class. 

While Mr Trump seemed strong and passionate on the topic of trade, his energy waned in the next hour of the debate, when Mrs Clinton clearly drove the debate and often put him on the defensive. 

She hit her opponent hard on not releasing his tax returns, trying to get under his skin by suggesting that "maybe he's not as rich as he says he is", "maybe he's not as charitable as he claims to be", or "may be he doesn't want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he's paid nothing in federal taxes". 

Mr Trump took the bait and said "that makes me smart" - almost an admission that he had indeed evaded taxes. 

When he tried to hit back using Mrs Clinton's email scandal, she promptly apologised for her mistake. 
 
The Republican then made the mistake of not grilling her more on the emails. Instead, he went back to talking about himself and his "extremely under-leveraged" business. 

 

From taxation, Mrs Clinton expertly led the discussion to Mr Trump's business, accusing him of building "a lot of businesses on the backs of little guys".  She talked about his bankruptcies and how he had stiffed contractors who had worked for him. 

Yet again, Mr Trump took the bait, defending himself and his company, saying it was an "unbelievable company". But he was unable to show how he stood for the "little guys", except to say that he had created tens of thousands of jobs. 

 

When the issue turned to race relations in America, Mrs Clinton talked about building trust between communities and the police, while Mr Trump painted himself as the law-and-order candidate. 

He expressed his support for "stop and frisk" measures, which the moderator pointed out was ruled unconstitutional in the state of New York. 

Mrs Clinton also scored big by suggesting that Mr Trump himself was racist, pointing out his part in the birther movement, saying that he started his political activity based on a "racist lie" that President Barack Obama was not an American citizen. 

She then harked back to 1973,  when Mr Trump was sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination because he would not rent apartment in one of his developments to African-Americans.

Once again, this put the real estate tycoon on the defensive, accusing Mrs Clinton of treating Mr Obama with disrespect when they were political opponents in the run up to the 2008 presidential election. His only defence for the 1973 suit was that he settled it with "no admission of guilt". 

By the time the topic got to security issues, Mr Trump had pretty much unravelled, insisting that he did not support the war in Iraq even after the moderator said that "records showed otherwise". 

He then went on an unprovoked spiel about his own temperament: "I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament. I have a winning temperament. I know how to win," he said. The comments drew a chuckle from the crowd, which had remained mostly impartial, with some cheers throughout the night. 

After saying the word "temperament" five times, Mrs Clinton simply responded with "Whew, ok" before speaking more substantively about the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the importance of maintaining allies. 

The night ended with both Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton being asked if they would accept the outcome of the election. Mrs Clinton gave a straight answer: " I support our democracy. And sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. But I certainly will support the outcome of this election."

But Mr Trump had to be asked twice before conceding: "I'm going to make America great again. I will be able to do it. If she wins, I will absolutely support her."