RALEIGH, United States: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump battled to break out of deadlocked polls after clashing in their first televised debate, lashing each other with insults on the campaign trail in critical states.
An exuberant Clinton came out swinging, condemning her Republican rival as “dangerously incoherent” with an energy that suggested she was exiting perhaps the worst period of her 15-month campaign beset by blunders in belittling Trump supporters and laid up with pneumonia.
The Manhattan billionaire retaliated, telling a rally of thousands of supporters in the battleground state of Florida “we’re going to get rid of that crooked woman” and accusing the press of alleged bias.
“I felt so positive about it,” Clinton told reporters aboard her campaign plane the day after the most watched US presidential debate in history that Nielsen said 84 million people tuned in to watch.
Most mainstream political analysts said the debate went in favor of the 68-year-old Democrat, who frequently forced her prickly opponent on the back foot over judgment, taxes, foreign policy and terrorism.
“The real point is about temperament and fitness and qualification to hold the most important, the hardest job in the world, and I think people saw last night some very clear differences between us.”
But with polls locked in a near dead-heat, showing that Clinton’s lead has all but evaporated, both sides cried victory.
In a campaign that has defied predictions, polarized the country and upended the political establishment, few can predict the possible impact at the ballot box on November 8.
Trump jetted into Florida to woo Hispanic voters, who polls show overwhelmingly prefer Clinton, attend two fundraisers in a bid to play catchup with his opponent’s vast war chest and lead a large rally.
A master at image control, his private Boeing 757 taxied right up to the airport hangar in Melbourne, where he stepped out to electric cheering from fans in a Hollywood-style arrival.
‘Candidate of yesterday’
He lost no time savaging Clinton for a debate performance as the crowd broke into chants of “lock her up, lock her up.”
“She’s the candidate of yesterday, and ours is the campaign and we’re the people of the future,” he said. “Her only experience has been a failure,” he added.
He announced that his campaign had raised $18 million in the last 24 hours, although he lags behind Clinton’s war chest. The Republican raised $90 million in August compared to Clinton’s $143 million.
In Florida, ardent Trump supporters stood by their man as the anti-establishment candidate who could bring back jobs and accused Clinton of being motivated by personal ambition alone.
“I liked everything he said,” said Elaine Nunn, 40, who works in finance and lives in Sebastian, a town 32 kilometers away from Melbourne on the Florida coast.
“He’s not a politician. He doesn’t have any hidden agenda,” she told AFP at the end of the hour-long speech.
It capped a day of two fundraisers, and a meeting with Hispanic voters in Little Havana, the Cuban-American heartland, which is in Miami.
But Trump faces an uphill task if he wants to win over Latinos who favor Clinton heavily in five key battleground states, according to a recent Florida Atlantic University poll.
In Miami, his motorcade swept past a handful of protesters, who held a “No Trump, No KKK, No racist USA” sign as they shouted in heavy rain.
During the debate on Long Island, New York, Clinton repeatedly questioned his fitness to serve in the Oval Office.
She painted the celebrity real estate mogul, who has never held elected office, as fatally out of touch and willing to say “crazy things” to get elected.
Trump has called for the votes of Americans frustrated with establishment politicians looking for an outsider to bring change.
“Secretary you are experienced, but it’s bad experience because everything you did turned out bad,” he repeated Tuesday.
Clinton berated Trump further in North Carolina, telling young voters that while she has detailed policies, “what we hear from my opponent is dangerously incoherent.”
Trump weathered allegations of bigotry and sexism, refusing to release his tax returns, won a vicious Republican primary campaign, and now has a real shot at being sworn in as the 45th president on January 20.
There are two more debates in the 2016 race, which could be pivotal in deciding whether Clinton will become the first woman president, or if Trump can pull off the greatest coup in US political history.