I found myself rooting for Donald Trump in the Hofstra University debate. I wasn’t planning to. It just happened. I guess I’ve always had a thing for underdogs.
It doesn’t mean I’m going to vote for Trump, but it puts to bed any remaining notion that I could fill in the circle on Election Day for Hillary Clinton, who clearly and unsurprisingly won the debate on points.
For the first time, perhaps, I truly saw the appeal Trump has for so many Americans. I saw a man fumbling to express what so many of his countrymen think and feel about the losses America has suffered in the past 30 years in middle-class jobs, international prestige, the ability to speak plainly without being criticized and, most critically, in their faith in the future.
Clinton, as expected, was smooth throughout the debate, never missing the layup opportunity to take it to her challenger. But she was also smug, increasingly so as the debate went on, and that probably didn’t sit well with some undecided viewers. Her polished answers would be effective in any other year, but for a nation tired of political speak, they may have missed their mark, or worse, typecast Clinton as the career incumbent politician in a throw-the-bums-out year.
Trump was up and down. At times, he was commanding, at other times he was defensive. And for a spell, somewhere in the middle of the debate, he appeared at risk of going completely off the rails. He began to perspire, his voice quivered, but then he managed to get back on track. His new team of handlers has to be especially pleased about that.
Even at Trump’s worst, though, he came across as genuine, like the frustrated citizen at a Town Hall who doesn’t care so much what he sounds like as long as he gets his say. Don’t get me wrong, Trump will never be the overall-clad farmer in Norman Rockwell’s classic “Freedom of Speech” painting, but he’s somewhere in that genre. And that’s a good place to be in this political environment.
I would expect Clinton to get a slight bounce in the polls, but nothing lasting. Trump did what many people thought he couldn’t: He went one-on-one against a famously practiced politician and survived. He scores points for that alone.
Against all odds, this is still a race.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.