Clinton hasn't landed the knockout punch ... yet

What does Trump's body language during debate mean?
What does Trump's body language during debate mean?

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What does Trump's body language during debate mean? 02:13

Story highlights

  • McTernan: Hillary didn't need to land a killer blow -- Trump had done that already
  • Trump needed a game changer, but Clinton needed no change and got it

John McTernan is a former speechwriter for ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and ex-communications director to former Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)People asking why Hillary Clinton didn't land a killer blow on Donald Trump in Sunday night's debate are asking the wrong question. This wasn't a defining event -- debates rarely are.

Even the legendary Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 was less important than people think. Kennedy's victory really came down to superior field organization by LBJ in Texas and Mayor Richard J. Daley in Chicago. This debate was an expectations play.
    Anyway, Hillary didn't need to land a killer blow. Trump had done that already.
    Which one? Take your pick. His attack on a Gold Star family. The abuse of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. The failure to publish his tax returns -- and the pride with which he said that not paying tax proved he was smart. Or the small matter of the video surfaced by the Washington Post this weekend featuring Trump talking about his predatory tactics for wooing women he finds attractive.
    Trump caught making lewd comments about woman in 2005
    Trump caught making lewd comments about woman in 2005

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    Trump caught making lewd comments about woman in 2005 00:58
    Clinton has had to avoid being riled or antagonized into answering Trump's jeers and smears. She had been given a template by Michelle Obama and indeed quoted her Sunday night, saying: "When they go low, we go high." Or, in the pointed words of Napoleon Bonaparte, "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."
    And Hillary hasn't. She has just watched him make mistakes, again and again.
    What was Trump doing? Well, one of the most important rules in politics is, "If you can't meet public expectations, then lower them." Judging by the past week, Trump has taken that advice to heart.
    Following the release of his lewd conversation with Billy Bush about hitting on women, Trump gave a master class in how not to manage a crisis.
    He started with an aggressive "non-apology apology." To be fair, he did utter the phrase "I apologize," which, for a man so avowedly narcissistic must have been difficult. He also tried to fashion a classic redemption narrative by saying, "I pledge to be a better man tomorrow and will never, ever let you down."
    But, Trump being who he is, he couldn't help launching an attack at the same time.
    "Hillary Clinton and her kind have run our country into the ground. I've said some foolish things, but there's a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims," he said over the weekend before adding with some menace, "We will discuss this more in the coming days. See you at the debate on Sunday."
    Then, in the face of a barrage of criticism from senior Republicans who called on him to rescind the nomination, Trump defied his own party and suggested he has no intention of dropping out of the race.
    Trump issues defiant apology for lewd remarks
    Trump issues defiant apology for lewd remarks

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    Trump issues defiant apology for lewd remarks 04:43
    All this, of course, was prologue to the second presidential debate. Some predicted the debate would be a slam dunk for Hillary Clinton, with Twitter jokesters saying her debate preparation would be to catch up on "Luke Cage" and other TV series.
    But nothing, particularly in this presidential race, is ever that simple. Trump turned up to this debate prepared and scripted, and gave a mostly polished performance. Many post-debate pundits scored him a win on points. But this was a classic of its kind, an over-performance against a very low bar.
    What was forgotten was who and what Trump is: a reality TV star with over a decade's experience on his show "The Apprentice."
    When he is disciplined and sticks to a script he is a fluent communicator. Anyone in doubt should watch Comedy Central's Trump roast. Last night he was on script and the town hall format seemed to suit him too.
    So we got a Trump whose trousers didn't fall down on stage, and he was therefore rated a triumph.
    But he also referred to Hillary Clinton as "the devil" and promised -- Robert Mugabe-style -- to have her jailed if he won the election.
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    Why did Trump do this? Because his script was not merely polished, it was likely tightly tested. The phrase "locker room" to describe misogynist comments reeks of a focus group. So, too, do his attacks on Clinton. He was appealing to his base, three-quarters of whom reject the Republican establishment's attempt to get Trump to stand down.
    Both candidates had a clear plan, which they executed. Hilary, though, will be more pleased with the results than Trump. Though she got a tough grilling from the moderators, Trump did not come close to damaging her. And he gave Clinton supporters -- and, more importantly, Clinton-leaning voters -- plenty of reasons to think they were right to favor her.
    Debates, in the end, are about candidates talking to supporters rather than sparring with each other. Trump will be pleased with his performance, but so too will Clinton. She, after all, went in to the debate with a lead in the polls and likely left it with that lead intact.
    Trump needed a game changer, but Clinton needed no change. And that's exactly what she got.