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A more effective Trump, yes — but enough to make a difference?

So who won the night?

Article originally published by Forbes. Hargreaves Lansdown is not responsible for its content or accuracy and may not share the author's views. News and research are not personal recommendations to deal. All investments can fall in value so you could get back less than you invest.

Shades of George H.W. Bush and 1992? Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden checks his watch during Thursday night's debate in Nashville. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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No man is an island – and going into Thursday night’s second and final presidential debate, Donald Trump wasn’t exactly stranded on Elba, devoid of advice.

Among the suggestions from the peanut gallery: stick to policy, not his opponent’s personality; bring up topics certain make former Vice President Joe Biden tap dance (for example, the Green New Deal).

Another frequent suggestion: stress the economy rather than Hunter Biden’s seemingly brazen attempts at monetizing his surname.

Did Trump take advantage of the free (and unsolicited) advice?

Yes and no.

On the one hand, the President was more controlled than he was in the first debate (granted, not exactly a high bar to clear) – less animated, less disruptive and less dismissive in his words and gestures (actually, Biden was more the eye-roller and camera-mugger throughout the evening).

What Trump didn’t do: resist the temptation to make it personal on at least three fronts: Biden’s character (insisting he’s raked in sleazy overseas money); son Hunter’s alleged grifting; and frequent suggestions that Biden’s lackluster record doesn’t square with his ambitious rhetoric.

So who won the night? I’m going with the moderator, NBC’s Kristen Welker. She succeeded where Fox News’ Chris Wallace failed in the first debate, by refusing to engage in Wallace-brand gotcha questioning.

Once the words are counted, it may turn out that Welker cut off Trump far more frequently than Biden – fair game in those instances when Trump overstepped his allotted time; but not so fair when she shifted topics before we could ascertain whether the former vice president was indeed “the big guy” alluded to in his son’s email traffic (so much for that as President Biden’s Secret Service code name).

On the other hand, Welker did turn the debate to the question of Hunter Biden’s global enterprising, which should quiet conservative media critics . . . for a short while, at least. In an election that seems to disappoint at every turn, from the candidates to the way they’re covered, let’s give credit where credit is due.

We’ll know in the next few days what if any effect this debate has on the horse race. But what was clear after 90 minutes: the respective campaigns’ closing arguments.

For Trump, it’s a return to 2016 and positioning himself as the political outsider (thus the frequent references to Biden’s long political march). Which is difficult for sitting presidents to do – divorce themselves from Washington’s proceedings and cast themselves as John Galt raging against the machine.

And for Biden: reminding the public of the difference in style and personality (in Biden’s words: “What is on the ballot is the character of this country”).

Reviewers of this debate will focus on the improved tone and tenor from the first go-around in Cleveland. Unfortunately, that didn’t include a larger window into the challenges abroad facing the winner of this contest over the next four years.

And that takes up to the “national security” segment of the debate (the second of six topics raised), maybe the weakest moment of the night.

A portion of that segment was gobbled up by the candidates accusing each other of foreign financial entanglements (Ukraine and China for Biden; Russia and China for Biden), followed up by questions regarding China and North Korea.

Noticeably absent: Syria, Iran, the Middle East, Russia, Europe’s leadership outlook, Taiwan’s defense, plus what happens in this hemisphere should Venezuela and/or Cuba come apart at the seams (or further apart, in Venezuela’s case).

Those are topics I’d much rather delve into than another rehashing of climate change (in case you’re curious, climate change is not a top-ten issue with voters according to this Gallup survey from late September). However it did provide Trump with an opening to exploit in the days ahead when the two tossed around energy and Biden talked about fossil fuels (more on that in a minute).

Speaking of Biden, I was more curious about his demeanor than Trump’s going into this debate. Why? Because, as the polls in the past couple of weeks have proven, Trump obviously couldn’t afford a repeat of his first performance. His behavior modification was predictable.

For Biden, the choice was more complicated: engage with Trump, or smile and shrug off his opponent’s barbs (what Ronald Reagan – “there you do again” – famously did at Jimmy Carter’s expense at almost this same time in 1980).

To the extent that Biden cracked a smile, it tended to be one of derision (don’t bother asking if Trump sincerely smiled). At times, the former vice president came across as a little too scowling and intense. At other times, he struggled with his words (like trying to utter “Rio Grande River” cleanly) or voiced thoughts that came out awkwardly (“I am anxious to have this race”).

One wonders if Biden ever reached out to Hillary Clinton and asked what it’s like to share a debate stage with Trump. Or, if he bothered to watch what transpired in 2016, for his animus toward his rivals is as evident as was Mrs. Clinton’s four years ago.

What Biden did do was provide Trump with openings – denying that he’d ban fracking (Trump’s already showing Biden’s words to the contrary at campaign rallies), or that Obamacare ever cost anyone their coverage. Historians’ ears might have perked up when Biden flippantly remarked that the U.S. had a good relationship with Nazi Europe leading up to the invasion of Poland (that might come as news to zeppelin enthusiasts).

Add to this: a Biden ad suggesting that “America was an idea. We’ve never lived up to it, but we’ve never walked away from it.” That might come as news to veterans and gold-star families, which Trump may point out should he close out the campaign in grand, patriotic fashion.

The problem with this, as far as Trump’s fortunes are concerned: it’s getting late in the game. The election is only two weekends away and some 48 million Americans have voted to this point (only 33 million Americans “went postal” in 2016, when a total of nearly 129 million ballots were cast).

Should Trump lose: he may come to regret that first debate performance when he was more a pit bull than an underdog. Had the President taken the same approach in Cleveland as he did in Nashville, it might be a much closer race right now.


This article was written by Bill Whalen from Forbes and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

Article originally published by Forbes. Hargreaves Lansdown is not responsible for its content or accuracy and may not share the author's views. News and research are not personal recommendations to deal. All investments can fall in value so you could get back less than you invest.

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