Trump came unglued early: He was ranting by the ten-minute mark. But Clinton, very much the opposite of her opponent, stayed disciplined. This was a death-by-a-thousand-cuts debate. While there wasn’t quite a moment per se—a “There you go again”—she hit Trump’s credibility repeatedly, attacking him for not releasing his tax returns, for being a racist, and for being a sexist.
The last attack was her ace in the hole. Trump’s worst moments in the primaries involved women—Megyn Kelly, Carly Fiorina, Heidi Cruz—and at the end of the debate, Clinton went in for the kill, hitting Trump for denigrating women and accusing him of creepily hanging around the beauty pageants he ran. Then she brought up a Miss Universe contestant, noting that Trump called her “Miss Piggy” because he thought she was overweight and “Miss Housekeeping” because she is Latina. A scowling Trump kept interrupting, asking Clinton where she found this information, suggesting that he had no idea who Clinton was referring to. Clinton responded by saying, “Donald, she has a name: Her name is Alicia Machado.” As Jonathan Chait wrote for New York, this drove home “the justifiable impression that Clinton sees her as a human being, unlike her opponent, who sees her as a piece of meat.” Trump then spent the final minutes of the debate ranting about Clinton’s negative ads and Rosie O’Donnell, whom he alleged deserved the horrible things Trump said about her. He took the bait—it was Khizr Khan all over again—and made Clinton’s point for her: He is a misogynist.
Clinton, the Midwestern Methodist, often struggles when talking about herself. But she excels when talking about others. That’s where you can hear why she became interested in politics in the first place: She clearly cares about people, particularly those less fortunate than herself, and wants to advocate for them. The Alicia Machado moment, which came at the end of the debate, was her strongest moment of the presidential campaign so far. Not just because it underscored the point that she (and many, many others) had been making for the last 15 months—that Donald Trump is a sexist who is unfit for the presidency—but because it made a case for Clinton as the anti-Trump, an empathetic advocate for the bullied and under-privileged.