Ronald Reagan, The Great Communicator, was once asked the secret to his communication success. He replied, “I practice.”
Practice, it’s been said, doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. It’s the reason major league ball players make turning a double play look easy.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump employed very different practice and preparation techniques for their first debate. Mrs. Clinton went with the traditional approach. She huddled with advisors and poured over briefing books.
Mr. Trump took a different direction. He eschewed the usual method, saying that he feared being “over prepared.” He met with his team on Sunday evenings, but didn’t engage in the nuances of policy.
His approach might well have worked. Presidential debates aren’t policy symposiums.
He needed only to display a basic semblance of knowledge about foreign and domestic policy. He passed that test.
Mr. Trump believed his “style” of freewheeling and verbally jabbing would carry the day for him. After all, it had gotten him through multiple Republican primary debates against a field of seasoned campaigners.
But one on one is a very different game than one versus the field. There’s no ability to strategically retreat as there is in a primary debate. The candidates are in the spotlight from beginning to end of the 90-minute ordeal.
Hillary Clinton has debated one-on-one dozens of times. Monday night was a first for Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump began the encounter well. He had a clear theme: “The country is in trouble. Career politicians did this to us. Mrs. Clinton has failed us for 30 years. I am the change candidate. I’ll fix things.” He made the case forcefully and without being rude.
Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, was stiff and academic. She appeared as a stale old-style pol. She wanted “fact-checkers” to slice and dice Mr. Trump’s very word, as if that was what would move the electorate.
As the debate rolled on, things shifted. Once Mr. Trump was finished with what was essentially his opening statement, things began to go south. He wasn’t prepared for the back and forth verbal jousting that is at the heart of debates. He appeared less and less comfortable as the debate went on.
He was shifting from being on offense to being on defense. With that shift went the momentum of the evening. Mrs. Clinton had clearly prepared to goad Mr. Trump into being defensive. He couldn’t resist taking the bait. He allowed himself to get bogged down in issues like “birtherism” and details of his business life.
A better prepared candidate would have deflected those attacks and moved on to reinforce his theme and take the fight directly to Hillary.
When the issue of “cybersecurity” was raised Mr. Trump made no mention of 30,000 missing emails from the private servers used by Mrs. Clinton.
Ditto with the Clinton Foundation, Benghazi, and a host of other issues on which Hilary Clinton is openly vulnerable.
Most important, there was no mention of the Supreme Court. That’s an issue that unites the conservative and right-of-center like no other. The prospect of a Court dominated for a generation by Hillary Clinton appointees brings even the remaining skeptics along.
It wasn’t so much what Mr. Trump said, but what he didn’t say that was the missed opportunity of the first debate.
He probably didn’t lose any support. His base is pretty well locked in and enthusiastically supportive. But he likely failed to move many of the undecided voters or those still willing to change their minds into his column.
One fact remains. Mr. Trump is still much more in sync with the mood of the country than Mrs. Clinton. She’s the candidate of the status quo and he’s the change candidate in an election cycle that is clearly weighted to him.
Although Mrs. Clinton leads the national polls, several battleground states are now within the margin of error, providing Mr. Trump additional opportunities for electoral vote success.
The next debate, scheduled for Oct. 9 gives Mr. Trump a shot at regaining the momentum and winning the hearts of the still undecided and genuinely persuadable. A little practice will help.
Charlie Gerow is a political analyst for Harrisburg's CBS affiliate, appearing weekly on its Sunday morning show, "Face the State," which is syndicated statewide. He serves as the first vice chair on the board of directors of the American Conservative Union. He is the CEO of Quantum Communications, a strategic communications and issue advocacy firm. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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