“The tape” had dominated the news for 72 hours, but Clinton herself stayed mum—her aides told the press that she wanted to save her response for the biggest stage possible. And when Anderson Cooper asked her about it, her response was pitch perfect. “What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women,” she said. “I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is. Because we’ve seen this throughout the campaign. He has also targeted immigrants, African Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities.” In other words, she wasn’t going to pummel Trump with the tape, but to slot it into an argument that she’s been building for months: Donald Trump is a bigot who is unfit for the office.
But Trump also raised the stakes by appearing in a press conference before the debate with four women who have accused the Clintons of abetting or committing sexual assault, and inviting them to sit in the front row of the debate itself. Trump was clearly using these women as a human shield, and some wondered if the move got under Clinton’s skin.
Clinton was probably held back by the town-hall format—it’s hard to really pummel your opponent when you’re ostensibly supposed to focus on individual voters. But it’s a question worth asking, especially given that the horse race punditry has knocked Clinton for not finishing Trump off on Sunday. Clinton may have held back to avoid counterpunches about her husband, but it’s just as likely that she exercised restraint simply because she doesn’t have to be the person to pummel Trump over the tape. The Clinton campaign will spend the next month running ad after ad about it, and her surrogates will go on offense, too, allowing her to take the elevated position she did last night. This is an attack that’s still going to be incredibly effective for the next four weeks.