HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, embracing his outsider’s credentials, said Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton was the candidate of the establishment and urged the country to move beyond the anti-terror and free trade policies he said have failed the country for decades, as they faced off in the first presidential debate Monday.
Mrs. Clinton tried to get under Mr. Trump’s skin, baiting him by saying he is not as rich as he claims, that he coasted on his father’s coattails as a businessman, that he was stingy when it came to charitable giving and that he has engaged in racist behavior.
The candidates interrupted each other during the chippy debate, though Mr. Trump was guilty of the lion’s share of violations, and traded charges of hiding from the voters with his tax returns and her secret emails.
Policy took a back seat for most of the 90-minute affair, held at Hofstra University, though Mr. Trump did break ground in saying he supports banning those who appear on the no-fly and other terrorist watch lists from legally purchasing firearms.
For the most part, though, the debate was fought on broader questions of character and commitment to average voters, with Mr. Trump saying Mrs. Clinton can’t be president after her embrace of free trade deals and her failure to contain the Islamic State terrorist organization while secretary of state.
“You’ve been doing this for 30 years. Why are you just thinking about these solutions right now?” Mr. Trump said.
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Mrs. Clinton worked from a long list of Mr. Trump’s checkered political history, saying the billionaire businessman peddled the “racist lie” that President Obama may not have been born in the U.S. She also said he has “a long record of engaging in racist behavior” in his business dealings.
She said Mr. Trump has been too friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has insulted black communities and is refusing to come clean on personal details voters deserve to know.
“Why won’t he release his tax returns?” Mrs. Clinton demanded, speculating that Mr. Trump, who claims to be worth $10 billion, has become ensnared by sketchy business ties. “There’s something he’s hiding. And we’ll guess. We’ll keep guessing.”
Pressed on the issue, Mr. Trump at one point said if he didn’t owe a tax liability it was legal, adding that perhaps that was good because the government would have squandered the money anyway.
When pressed for her own policy specifics, Mrs. Clinton ticked off policy stances and showed the long hours of preparation she put in ahead of the debate.
Mr. Trump, though, mocked her for failing to show up on the campaign trail in recent days, saying she was ignoring voters.
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“I think that Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for, I prepared to be president and I think that is a good thing,” she said.
On race relations, both candidates acknowledged suffering in minority communities. Mrs. Clinton said the solutions included gun control, curtailing the use of private prisons and releasing some drug offenders. Mr. Trump summed up his approach in three words: “Law and order.”
They even sparred over how much to say about their approaches to terrorism, with Mr. Trump mocking Mrs. Clinton for laying out on her website a specific proposal to fight the Islamic State, saying she was letting the enemy know U.S. plans.
“At least I have a plan to fight ISIS,” Mrs. Clinton countered.
She accused Mr. Trump of saying “crazy” things, and demanded fact-checkers “get to work” in poring over his statements during the debate — but she was one of the first to be dinged for softening her previous support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Mrs. Clinton found herself defending the economic records of both President Obama and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who oversaw enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“I have a feeling by the end of this evening I am going to be blamed for everything that has happened,” Mrs. Clinton said.
“Why not?” Mr. Trump quipped, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Voters will get a chance to size up their respective running mates — Mr. Kaine and Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana — next week in Farmville, Virginia, before Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump face off again on Oct. 9 in St. Louis and Oct. 19 in Las Vegas.
Mrs. Clinton emerged from a weak field of candidates, taking far longer than analysts predicted to overcome a spirited challenge from Sen. Bernard Sanders to become the first woman to claim the nomination of a major political party.
Mr. Trump, after years of flirting with a run, took the plunge and fended off a massive field of opponents, riding a wave of discontent to claim the Republican nomination. Along the way, he bested four senators and a slate of sitting governors — including the brother and son of the two most recent Republican presidents.
Also attracting attention this year — but left off Monday night’s stage because of inadequate polling — are Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
But most of the oxygen in the race has been absorbed by Mr. Trump, who, after a trying August, has made up substantial ground in the polls, with Republicans rallying to him. In a four-way matchup, Mrs. Clinton leads by just 1.6 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.
The billionaire businessman has also closed the gap in Pennsylvania, taken the lead in Ohio and is virtually tied in Florida — the three big swing states.
Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, called the race a “dead heat,” with his latest forecast giving Mrs. Clinton a 54 percent chance of becoming president, compared with 46 percent for Mr. Trump.
In Washington, Democrats were increasingly frantic. On the Senate floor, Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, accused Mr. Trump of being a racist and demanded the press start calling him such.
Mr. Reid, who himself has a history of foot-in-mouth, said the difference is that others apologize for being what he called “politically incorrect.”
“But Donald Trump doesn’t believe the racist things he does and says are wrong. He says them with the full intent to demean and denigrate. That is who he is,” Mr. Reid said.
Boxing promoter Don King, one of Mr. Trump’s surrogates, rebutted the charge.
“He is a not a racist. In fact, he is the only one that isn’t a racist,” said Mr. King. “All we are doing is living with racism. Everyone is playing the game: Throw a rock, and hide their hand, and apologize.”
Mr. Reid isn’t the only Democrat to blame the press for not doing enough to stop Mr. Trump’s ascent.
The Democratic National Committee has been mounting a campaign to get reporters — and the moderators in all of the debates — to dispute Mr. Trump when they believe he id getting his facts wrong. They say he has been able to get away with deceiving voters about his own policies, his characterizations of Mrs. Clinton’s policies, and the successes and failures of the Obama administration.
“Frankly, if you can’t recognize what the truth is, then you really can’t be a president, you can’t be a commander in chief,” Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, said at a campaign stop in Florida on Sunday.
The debate marked the first time that a national audience had the chance to see Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton on the same stage. For Mr. Trump, it marked the first time he debated against a single rival.
Mr. Trump’s guest list included his wife and children, as well as Bobby Knight, former head coach of the Indiana Hoosiers college basketball team, Mark Geist, a Marine Corps veteran who survived the Benghazi attacks, and retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn, who has emerged as a top Trump surrogate on the campaign trail.
Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, invited Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and top Trump critics, Lauren Manning, a survivor of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and Anastasia Somoza, who was born with cerebral palsy.