The first presidential debate is now fading in the rear-view mirror, and all eyes will be on tonight’s second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

The first encounter had all the crazy excitement of a prize fight, and if you had a front row seat you got your money’s worth. There were jabs and wild roundhouses. Circling and dancing. Trash talking, and even a few solid shots.

That debate occurred at a crucial moment in the race. Clinton’s once-comfortable lead in national polls was shrinking by the day. In critical swing states like Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, Trump was either close or ahead.

An audience of close to 100 million people tuned in that night, many taking their first long look at the two candidates. Trump’s goal was simple: assure Americans that he has the temperament and character to be president and keep the momentum going. Clinton’s goals were a little more complicated. She had to stop Trump’s momentum. Show herself as presidential. Appear trustworthy and likeable. And, of course, be both a nice and tough woman.

Five weeks ago, I wrote that this election was Clinton’s to lose, and for the four weeks that followed, she seemed determined to do just that. But one clear advantage she had, I said then, was in debates: “She’s a smart and seasoned debater. She doesn’t shoot herself in the foot every time she has a microphone in front of her. And she’s got tons of ammunition from Trump’s statements over the last year.”

All of that was on display in the first debate. Trump was out-prepared, out-maneuvered and out-argued. The only thing he won was the face-making contest. And the results began to show themselves almost immediately. Energized Democrats had a new spring in their step, as they began to emerge from their respective bomb shelters. And Clinton gained some begrudging, but real, respect from Sanders holdouts and others on the fence.

In 26 swing state polls conducted since the debate, Clinton is only behind in one. Overall, she’s improved in almost all swing states and now leads nationally by 3 to 5 percentage points.

For Trump, the second debate has become a do-or-die affair. He has to stop the momentum created by his first performance, while he still can. But it won’t be easy. Trump is lazy about preparation. He likes to make sweeping arguments but stumbles with details. And he has an off and on, if not indifferent, relationship with facts.

The debate uncovered a weakness in Trump that will be continually exploited by Clinton. He’s thin-skinned and reactive, and he keeps reacting long after the game is over and folks have gone home. Trump kept the battle with a former Miss Universe going for four days, in the same way that he kept the Gold Star parents story going after the Democratic convention. The guy just doesn’t know when to move on.

For a man who has made an art form of insulting others, Trump doesn’t seem to take it nearly as well as he gives it.

What Clinton learned is that Trump is like a baseball player who can’t hit the curveball. A good pitcher will keep throwing that pitch until the guy shows he can hit it, or strikes out. And that’s exactly what you can expect from Clinton in the second debate.

Like many people born into wealth and privilege, Trump’s accustomed to having demure and servile people around him. People who never challenge him and who obey orders. That is not what happens in a presidential debate.

And then there’s the matter of his words, over the past year. Trump’s handlers are now trying to keep him glued to a teleprompter. But the guy’s been free-forming for a long time. And Democrats have filled their video vault with Trump quotes that don’t play so well outside of his adoring events.

The race isn’t over, of course. Wikileaks is again threatening to release more stolen emails that they hope will embarrass Clinton. The Russians may still have some tidbits from their cyber break-in of the Democratic National Committee. It’s even possible that Trump could have a stellar performance tonight, or that Clinton will somehow forget how to win debates.

But whenever a candidate is relying on others to save him, things aren’t going well. If Trump staggers out of tonight’s debate like he did the last one, he’ll soon learn that changing the trajectory of a race in the final four weeks is nearly impossible. Russians or no Russians.

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, owns Caron Communications and is the author of “Maine’s Next Economy” (2015) and “Reinventing Maine Government” (2010). He can be reached at: [email protected]


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