Donald Trump famously believes that stamina is a key attribute in politics and that he has it in abundance, while his adversaries – from Jeb Bush to Hillary Clinton – are woefully lacking.
So it was odd on Monday night to see Trump lose his way in the second half of the presidential debate. Was it a lack of stamina?
The body language – and attempts at hydration – told the story. Trump looked increasingly frustrated and out of sorts while Clinton maintained her composure throughout. Trump sniffled and reached for his glass of water numerous times. Clinton didn't take a single sip.
“She just got under his skin. He lost all focus,” said Steven Schale, a former 2012 campaign staffer for President Barack Obama but who is sitting this race out.
Trump's ill-ease appeared to transmit itself to the front row of the audience at Hofstra University where his wife and daughter, Melania and Ivanka Trump, looked uncomfortable.
Despite his low energy, Trump survived the debate without a complete meltdown, which many analysts consider to be a technical victory for the untested Republican candidate for whom expectations were low going into the debate.
"Trump … didn't get [knocked out], but didn't totally soil himself. Mildly exceeds expectations,” tweeted Jorge Bonilla, a Republican analyst in Central Florida. "He wasn't as effective in a one-on-one debate as he was during the primaries," he added.
In the absence of a clear winner some commentators scored it a draw. “If you're voting for Trump, you think he won. If you're voting for Hillary, you think she won,” tweeted Marc Caputo, Politico’s outspoken senior writer based in Miami. “A Clinton problem heading into the debate was passion for her candidacy. She sounded cerebral. But was it enough to inspire voters?” he added.
"I believe Clinton won the debate on points – clearly better prepared to handle details, understand policy matters, and to articulate a clear vision," added pollster John Zogby who is critical of Trump. "But in the final analysis little will change from this debate. Neither candidate exceeded expectations and neither went too far beyond their own constituencies ... I doubt the polls will move an inch," he added.
"The pundit consensus seems to be that Hillary Clinton “won,” but we all know how many times Donald Trump has been counted out, only for him to endure," wrote Sabato's Crystal Ball, an online electoral bulletin published by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"Trump faces many questions about his qualifications for the job and his temperament, and we don’t believe he did much to provide satisfactory answers to those concerns. Perhaps enough voters want change so much that they are willing to overlook their reservations," the Crystal Ball added.
While Clinton seemed to be gaining in momentum the longer the debate went on, she let Trump off the ropes by declining to go for the jugular. Trump sought to wriggle out of the birther controversy and his failure to end the questioning of Obama’s citizenship sooner, saying “no-one was caring much about it.” Clinton could have interjected by pointing out how Obama and a majority of Americans disagreed with him. Instead, she sat tight, preferring to let Trump dig himself a bigger hole.
That appeared to be her strategy all night: see if given enough rope Trump might hang himself. He came close but didn’t quite fall into the trap.
Though she did land some blows, analysts say her campaign may have been wary of being too rough with Trump, anxious to avoid an ugly double standard that often lets men get away with asserting themselves in leadership roles, while women are criticized for being overly aggressive.
Democrats were worried early in the debate as Trump started the stronger, launching into one of his favorite topics; free trade and the loss of jobs to Mexico and China. “He went from fairly solid in first 15 minutes to angry incoherence late,” said Schale. “But who knows if anything matters,” he added, echoing the sentiment of many Democrats who are dismayed by polls trending in Trump’s favor in recent weeks.
Trump seemed to get riled when Clinton put in a personal jibe, questioning his early career and the financial support the real estate mogul received from his father.
“Once he got in that bad mental state he wasn’t able to pivot back to his favorite topics like immigration and trade, and he whiffed on some openings Clinton left him,” added Schale.
Trump was clearly still hurting at the end. “It’s not nice, and I don't deserve that,” was how he meekly summed up Clinton’s attacks in his closing remarks.