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Joe Henderson: Donald Trump’s curious debate strategy — ‘he blew it’

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During Monday’s presidential debate, I kept waiting for a moment that never came.

Donald Trump had 100 million sets of eyeballs focused on him. What better time to prove he is not, as Hillary Clinton paints him, a racist, sexist, selfish jerk from an alternate universe.

Trump was combative, but that’s who he is. Clinton was throwing haymakers too. We expected that.

But after all the provocative and divisive things Trump has said on the campaign trail, he had a chance to broaden his support across multiple groups.

So what did he do?

He went all in on the controversial (and unconstitutional) practice of allowing police to stop and frisk anyone they deem suspicious. The practice was unpopular with 67 percent of blacks in New York, where it gained notoriety because the vast majority of individuals stopped were African-American or Hispanic; nearly nine in 10 of them were found to be carrying nothing suspicious.

He also continued his self-congratulations on pushing the fairy tale that President Barack Obama was born outside the United States, noting, “I got him to give the birth certificate.”

Never mind that no other president ever faced such a ridiculous claim, and that it looked downright racist considering Obama is the first black chief executive.

Given all that, Trump may have pulled off the impossible. He may actually have lost ground with black voters. But he wasn’t done.

He not only repeated his oft-debunked claim that he opposed the Iraq invasion, he doubled-down on it in a mini-spat with moderator Lester Holt, who calmly replied, “The facts show otherwise.”

He gave Clinton a ready-made attack ad when she attacked him on rooting for the housing crash in 2008 because he could profit from homeowners who were evicted. I can only imagine how his handlers must have cringed when he quipped, “It’s business.”

And Trump wasted an opportunity after he unleashed a zinger on Clinton, who was blasting him over declining to release his tax returns. Trump shot back that he would do that when Clinton releases the approximately 33,000 emails deleted off her private server.

Well played, sir.

She deflected the punch though, and pushed on with an attack about Trump not paying federal income taxes in some years. It was an exaggerated claim, as PolitiFact reported, and dates back to 1978 and ’79. Trump could have easily let that go and focused back on the emails.

Nope. Didn’t do it.

“That makes me smart,” Trump interjected.

Clinton pounced.

“So if he’s paid zero, that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health,” she said. “And I think probably he’s not all that enthusiastic about having the rest of our country see what the real reasons are, because it must be something really important, even terrible, that he’s trying to hide.”

Trump then made it worse by saying, “You don’t learn much in a tax return.”

Yes, you do. That’s why presidential candidates release them.

Most of the post-debate scorekeepers gave the debate to Clinton, but that’s hard to measure. If you liked Trump’s cowboy candidacy all along, you probably saw nothing Monday that changed your mind. If you don’t like Clinton, you still don’t.

For me, though, the debate wasn’t about reinforcing each candidate’s base of support. Trump needed to cut into Clinton’s lead with women, blacks and Hispanics — three groups he desperately needs. If he could cut into Clinton’s overwhelming support there, he could win this race.

He had his chance Monday night.

He blew it.

Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

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