The tone was cordial at the outset, each candidate being polite to the other while hitting their talking points: she on equal pay for women, he on China and Mexico stealing American jobs.
Hillary Clinton said it was good to be with Donald Trump. Trump said he probably agreed with Clinton on child care. But it didn’t last long.
But Clinton, perhaps surprisingly, was the aggressor all night. She threw the first jabs, saying Trump’s father loaned him $14 million and that he was pushing “Trumped-up trickle-down” to mainly help the wealthy.
Trump came back by saying his dad gave him “a small loan,” made a show of calling her “Secretary Clinton” and said she should have started pushing for jobs years earlier.
“Donald was one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis,” she said.
“That’s called business, by the way,” he interrupted.
Another jab: Clinton said Trump called climate change a hoax. Another interruption: Trump insisted he never said that.
When Trump insisted Clinton did nothing to create jobs for 30 years, she smiled and played the spousal card: “I think my husband did a pretty good job in the 1990s.”
It was 20 minutes into the faceoff when Trump finally went on offense, accusing Clinton of dropping her support for the Pacific trade deal to match his opposition.
“You called it the gold standard,” he said.
“Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts,” Clinton countered.
As the debate wore on, Clinton acted bemused at Trump’s charges, smiling and at one point suggesting he was saying “crazy” things. That seemed to aggravate the Republican nominee, who started talking faster and louder in pressing his case.
The good news for Trump is that he was debating serious issues with the former secretary of State, made no obvious gaffes and delivered no low blows.
His overarching indictment seemed to be that politics as usual had created a mess in the country: “Typical politician. All talk, no action, never gonna happen.”
The debate heated up when Holt asked why Trump wouldn’t release his tax returns. He gave his standard answer about an IRS audit but said he’d disclose them if Clinton would release her 33,000 deleted emails.
When Clinton gave an unusually crisp answer—it was a mistake and she would offer no excuses—Trump pounced. He said the private server wasn’t a mistake, that it was intentional, and noted that some of her aides had invoked the Fifth Amendment.
Just as he was getting a little traction, Clinton turned the debate to Trump’s business, saying she had met people “who were stiffed by you and your businesses, Donald,” and that “I’m certainly relieved my late father never did business with you.” Next thing you know, Trump was explaining his four corporate bankruptcies.
The differences were stark when the debate turned to crime. “We have to bring back law and order,” Trump declared. Clinton said it was unfortunate that he was painting “such a dire, negative picture of black communities.”
Clinton missed an opportunity to defend the police when asked if they are biased against blacks, saying many of us have to struggle with implicit bias.
The birtherism section did not go well for Trump. Asked why he had pushed the birther issue against President Obama, Trump blamed Clinton advisers Sidney Blumenthal and Patty Solis Doyle for first floating the issue in 2008. He deflected Holt’s question about why he continued to press the issue after the president produced his birth certificate. Clinton, ignoring his comments about her aides, accused Trump of pushing a “racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen.”
Trump was able to blame the administration for the rise of ISIS, repeating his refrain that American forces should have “taken the oil.” When she said Trump supported the invasion of Iraq (as she did in the Senate), he kept saying “wrong” as she was speaking—a microcosm of the debate.
Holt then declared as fact (which Matt Lauer did not) that Trump had supported the Iraq invasion. Trump called that "mainstream media nonsense," citing, as he has in the past, an interview with Neil Cavuto (in which Trump did not oppose the war) and private conversations with Sean Hannity (which Hannity has confirmed).
The bottom line: Clinton set the pace for the Long Island debate, and Trump spent much of his time responding. He scored his points, but often as a counterpuncher.
A final word about the moderator: Holt lost control of the debate several times. And he was more aggressive against Donald Trump. He asked Trump a hard question about not releasing his tax returns, but didn’t do the same with Clinton’s email mess, merely asking her to respond after Trump raised it in rebuttal. He pressed Trump three times on the birther issue, with no comparable attempt to pin down Clinton.
Holt's fact-checking attempts were all against Trump. He followed up on Trump’s call for stop-and-frisk tactics against crime, saying that in New York it was struck down by the courts. And he backed Clinton on Trump's lack of public opposition to the 2003 Iraq war.
Holt often let the candidates go at it, and go at it they did. But his role may prove to be as controversial as what the nominees said.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.