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It’s hard to pick the worst moment for Donald Trump on a night during which he flailed trying to find balance. But an early gaffe largely lost in the cross-talk indicated that he was more easily baited, and thirstier for blood, than he was prepared for a presidential debate.

And it smacked of a mistake that helped cost Gerald Ford a return engagement as president in 1976.

“You’re telling the enemy everything you want to do,” Trump said in a familiar criticism of Clinton’s plan for dealing with the Islamic State. Then he deviated: “No wonder you’ve been fighting — no wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.”

Back in 1976, Ford said “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” which, of course there was. Trump placed the birth of ISIS in 1965, about six decades too early.

It’s not that Trump really thinks ISIS formed when Clinton was 18, or that she’s only been an adult for the last several years. But Clinton was under his skin, and he reacted like a child by simply blurting out the first attack that came to mind.

[Five Objectives for Hillary Clinton in the Debates]

Clinton called for fact-checkers to take a look at that one as the candidates and moderator Lester Holt grappled for control of the debate. In any normal year, such a wild claim might be disqualifying — it displayed a lack of knowledge of ISIS far worse than Rick Perry’s inability to name a Cabinet department on command. But in a year when facts don’t seem to matter, the truth was far less important than what the response said about Trump’s temperament.

He couldn’t keep his cool in a pressure-packed moment. Clinton had just countered a Trump attack on her ISIS proposal by taunting him. “At least I have a plan,” she said.

Then, Trump lost his composure. In doing so, he underscored the marquee phrase of her Democratic convention speech, when she said “a man you can bait with a Tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

After that, Trump never recovered for long. And that must have been very frustrating for his fans — especially after he effectively crushed Clinton on trade in the debate’s opening moments.

But the ISIS exchange set the table for Clinton to calmly prosecute her case against Trump on taxes, foreign policy and criminal justice. She was so much better on substance that Trump quietly agreed with her at least three times.

[Hillary's Honesty and Trump's Temperament]

Holt countered Trump when he lied about his pre-war support for the Iraq invasion and his role in promoting what Clinton called the “racist birther lie.”

Trump and his spinners can insist he won, but they know in their hearts that Clinton, who wasn’t even at her best, wiped the floor with him. Trump’s ISIS gaffe was that of a bush-leaguer stepping to the plate at Yankee Stadium and buckling at the sight of his first big-league curve.

Indeed, Clinton’s missteps might have stood out more against a more seasoned debater who was positioned to take advantage of them rather than turning focus back on his own shortcomings. But in the end, Trump lied, denied and bullied his way to the worst debate performance since the advent of television.

Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.

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For an hour and a half Monday night, Donald Trump sniffled and bickered his way through a highly contentious debate. With all the talk of health problems, perhaps it’s ironic that Trump was the one who seemed a bit under the weather. And heaven knows we obsess too much over the superficial.

But if Al Gore’s audible sighing was an issue, and Dr. Ben Carson’s coughing fit was a distraction, then Trump’s performance may go down as the sniff heard ‘round the world.

Maybe he lacks stamina. He got off to a good enough start. But Clinton was consistently cheery and spunky, and frequently on the attack. There were no coughing fits or fainting spells; just sharp elbows. And, more importantly, when Trump said that Clinton lacked stamina, it was juxtaposed by a split screen of her smiling and looking sharp as a tack.

If her goal was to get under Trump’s skin — you know, sniff out his weakness, and bait him into losing his temper — it worked. She got under that thin skin by talking about his inherited wealth and questionable status as a billionaire. What is more, Trump is not a conventional politician, and he did not heed the conventional warnings about the dangers of a male candidate attacking a female one.

We won’t know until some polling comes out whether Trump’s unchivalrous interruptions and attacks will backfire the way that Rick Lazio’s now infamous invasion of Clinton’s personal space did, but Trump will test the theory that male candidates need to attack with caution.

Trump passed the competence test, but he did nothing to resolve concerns about his temperament. What is more, while his combative performance is likely to please his current base, if one assumes a Trump victory requires increasing his support among Republican women (Trump is getting only about 72% of them, but Mitt Romney garnered 93% of the Republican women vote), it’s hard to see where tonight’s performance strategically accomplished that objective.

As the night wore on, Clinton got stronger, and Trump seemed to get more thin-skinned and braggadocios. The turning point where Trump stumbled seemed to be the “birther” question.

I guess you never know what will be remembered in a debate. Did anyone expect that “There you go again” would be cited four decades later?

So much of the handwringing heading into this debate had to do with the possibility that a moderator might “fact-check” the candidates. But except for pointing out Trump’s erroneous claim that he always opposed the Iraq war, moderator Lester Holt was barely noticeable.

Early on, there were times when it seemed that he had ceded control, not that this was a bad thing. Both candidates held their own, and a good referee doesn’t make himself part of the story. The crowd also broke the rules a few times by applauding, but it seemed more uncontrollable than planned.

In the end, I don’t think it mattered much at all.

What is more, anyone worried that Trump could not fill the requisite time allowed to respond to questions, or that his lack of expertise in policy areas would be obvious, was wrong. Always loquacious, Trump had no trouble filling the time. And although his lack of policy fluency is no secret, his folksy answers — especially early on — were a refreshing change from the normal way politicians usually speak.

Still, by my score, Hillary Clinton easily won this debate. This is especially impressive, since coming into the debate, she had the harder task.

For one thing, it was hard to predict which Donald Trump was going to show up. She had to prepare several contingency plans. Additionally, expectations regarding Trump’s performance were low, meaning that it should have been easier for him to exceed them. I guess those intense debate prep sessions paid off for her. On strategy and style, she was superior. This is not to say that we should expect Trump’s polling to suddenly collapse. More likely, this will stall the momentum he has been gaining for the last several weeks.

At the end of the night, both these candidates have serious flaws. Whether it was Trump’s excuses about not releasing his taxes, or Clinton’s excuses about her personal e-mail account, neither one of the candidates passed America’s sniff test.

But we’re past the stage of bargaining, and onto acceptance. Somebody has to win, and tonight, it was Clinton.

Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a Senior Contributor to the Daily Caller and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter @MattKLewis.

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To hear Donald Trump tell it for the last year, Senate Republicans were weak, dumb losers, and not just the ones he ran against for president. He infamously called Sen. John McCain “not a war hero” and tweeted that Sen. Jeff Flake was “a very weak and ineffective senator … Sad!” He lambasted Sen. Mark Kirk as “dishonest” and a “loser,” and told an Atlanta rally that he wished Republican leaders in Washington would “just please be quiet” so he could win the race by himself.

He tagged Sen. Lindsey Graham “a disgrace” and “one of the dumbest human beings I have ever seen.” Sen. “Little Marco” Rubio was “just another Washington, D.C., politician” with “the biggest ears I’ve ever seen.” Sen. Rand Paul was “truly weird” and Sen. “Lyin'” Ted Cruz was not only dishonest, but by Trump’s suggestion, his father was involved in the Kennedy assassination.

So imagine the irony if those useless slobs in the upper chamber, 22 of whom will share the ballot with Trump in November, actually help him win the White House on Election Day. That emerging possibility is a reversal from the assumption leading up to this point in the cycle, which said that Trump’s coattails would determine the fates of Senate Republicans, and not the other way around. If Trump did well, the thinking went, they would do well. If he tanked, he would take them down with him like passengers on the Titanic.

But as Trump’s poll numbers tumbled through the summer, the Republicans running for re-election worked to build their own brands, with their own paths to victory, independent of their erratic nominee. The result is now a class of Republican Senate candidates who are nearly all more popular than Trump, with many who have built robust campaign operations of their own, above and beyond Trump’s scattershot approach to Election Day.

[The Down-Ballot Shuffle, a Ticket-Splitting Revival]

An analysis last week by The Washington Post showed Senate Republican candidates overperforming Trump by an average of 4 points in competitive states. Only Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and Rep. Todd Young in Indiana are polling worse than Trump.

In critical swing states like Arizona and Florida, “Not a War Hero” McCain and “the Biggest Ears I’ve Ever Seen” Rubio are not only pulling ahead of their Democratic rivals, they’re also outpolling Trump by double digits. So is Rob Portman in Ohio, where Portman has built a massive turnout operation to get his own voters to the polls, no matter what the Trump campaign does or does not do on Election Day. Ohio is now tied for Trump and Clinton, but a major Portman victory could deliver just enough persuadable voters to the polls to give Trump a margin of victory.

In Georgia and Utah, two states that should be easy wins for Trump but are dangerously close contests instead, Sens. Johnny Isakson and Mike Lee are way out ahead of their rivals. If Trump wins those states, he may have them to thank for bringing Republicans to the polls who might not have bothered otherwise.

So how would a Trump White House work with a Republican Senate if the party defied expectations and won them both? It’s hard to imagine President Trump being able to bury the hatchet with senators he maligned along the way, who could then chair committees, allocate funds, and hold the votes for whatever agenda Trump has in mind. They might not forgive him for the things he said, and he might not forgive them for some insults they hurled in the heat of the campaign.

[Senate Republicans Leave Trump Meeting With Little to Say]

After months of being called “Little Marco,” Rubio snapped and called Trump a small handed, orange-hued “con artist.” Sen. Ben Sasse described Trump as one half of “the dumpster fire” that the election has become. Mike Lee said Trump “scares me to death,” while Ted Cruz, after the Your-Father-Helped-Kill-Kennedy bit, called Trump a “sniveling coward” and “a narcissist the likes of which I don’t think this country has ever seen.”

But it’s possible that all of those insults and nasty words about Trump during the primary were just politics masquerading as conviction.

On Friday, Ted Cruz endorsed Trump after declaring at the Republican convention that he was “not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and father.” But Cruz apparently is in the habit of supporting people who could be in power in the near future.

Even if Republican senators hold their own, the question remains whether voters who come out for their senators will also vote for Trump, split their ticket or skip the top line altogether. Ticket-splitting reached a 92-year low in the 2012 elections, but as Walter Shapiro pointed out here this summer, ticket splitting may not be dead, it might just be sleeping. The 2016 election will answer that question once and for all.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Monday that Donald Trump is a racist, and lambasted the media for not labeling the Republican presidential nominee as such.

"There's always one word that many in the press conspicuously avoid: racist. … But he is a racist. Donald Trump is a racist," Reid said on the Senate floor. "'Racist' is a term I don't throw around lightly."

Reid has frequently taken to the floor to rail against the real estate mogul, and he recently criticized Trump's reluctance to release his tax returns and he alleged misconduct at the Trump Foundation.

[It's On Between Harry Reid and Donald Trump]

Reid said the media is not holding Trump accountable for his statements. He cited reports that Trump was discriminatory and derogatory toward minority employees, and his role in the so-called birther movement, which raised questions about whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States.

Reid also pointed to Trump's rhetoric about Muslims, and his remarks on a federal judge overseeing a Trump University lawsuit, which Speaker Paul D. Ryan called the "textbook definition of a racist comment." Reid criticized Ryan and and other Republicans for backing Trump's presidential bid.

"Think of the example Republicans are setting for our nation's youth," the minority leader said. "Republicans are normalizing racist behavior."

On Monday, Reid went where he declined to go 10 days ago during an interview on CNN. Asked on Sept. 16 if Trump is racist, Reid said, "I don't know. All you guys have a job to do. You make that decision. I'm not going to. I'm just telling you what he's done and we've seen it. He's a man of no morality."

Reid's comments come hours before Trump and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton face off in the first general election debate.

Contact Bowman at bridgetbowman@rollcall.com and follow her on Twitter @bridgetbhc.

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Donald Trump's repetitive sniffling and water-sipping during the first presidential debate Monday night caused the Twitterverse to speculate if he was on something.

"Notice Trump sniffling all the time. Coke user?" tweeted former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a doctor and a former Democratic presidential candidate. Notice Trump sniffing all the time. Coke user? — Howard Dean (@GovHowardDean) September 27, 2016

From there, the hashtag #CocaineTrump took off, with the Twitterati chiming in with their own thoughts on the Republican nominee's sniffles. WHO WON THE DEBATE? HILLARY: 62% TRUMP: 27% COCAINE: 11%#CocaineTrump#Sniffles — ReallyDon'tTrump (@ReallyDontTrump) September 27, 2016 If #CocaineTrump is his new business, its going to fail, too. Although he wouldn't have to pay taxes on it either. https://t.co/IbI1L0FhpD — Joann Shawn (@joannshawn1) September 27, 2016 "To be president of this country, you need to have tremendous amounts of cocaine, I mean, er, stamina." #debatenight #cocainetrump — Mer (@mjjaaska) September 27, 2016

However, not everyone appreciated the former governor's tweet.

Kevin Corke, Fox News' White House correspondent, called Dean's remark "unbecoming." @GovHowardDean unbecoming Governor. Americans expect better from you. — Kevin Corke (@kevincorke) September 27, 2016

Matt Rosoff, an executive editor at BusinessInsider, rebutted Dean's assertion. @GovHowardDean He's 70 dude. He'd be dead. — Matt Rosoff (@MattRosoff) September 27, 2016

Suzanne Mulet, the Salt Lake County GOP chairwoman, also had a diagnosis. @GovHowardDean @NormanAtlantic4 Maybe he caught Hillary's pneumonia. — Suzanne (@suzannemulet) September 27, 2016

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