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Clinton energized after showdown with Trump

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Raleigh (United States) (AFP)

Hillary Clinton stormed back onto the campaign trail Tuesday energized by her performance in her first debate against Donald Trump, who threatened to "hit her harder" in the final stretch of the White House race.

Clinton's bearing, as she flew to a rally in North Carolina, suggested she was climbing out from perhaps the worst period of her 15-month campaign, when she belittled Trump supporters two weeks ago and was then laid up with pneumonia.

"I felt so positive about it," Clinton told reporters aboard her campaign plane the morning after she went toe to toe with Trump and frequently forced her prickly opponent on to the back foot.

"I was thrilled I got a chance to lay out some of the middle-class economic policies and pro-family policies that I've been talking about throughout this campaign to all the viewers who tuned in," Clinton added.

"But the real point is about temperament and fitness and qualification to hold the most important, the hardest job in the world, and I think people saw last night some very clear differences between us."

The White House hopefuls sparred over temperament, judgment, trade, the economy, terrorism and other issues in a televised match-up Monday night that seemed to have gone in favor of the Democrat Clinton, according to most mainstream political analysts.

But in a campaign that has consistently defied predictions from the political establishment, few can forecast for sure the impact on Americans' vote on November 8.

- Pulling punches? -

Both sides cried victory Tuesday as the spin game that began the very instant the showdown ended kept up in full gear.

Trump told Fox News he thought the debate went well, but complained that moderator Lester Holt failed to press Clinton on "her scandals," citing the controversies over her use of private email server as secretary of state and her handling of a 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.

"They were leaving all of her little goodies out," he said Tuesday on "Fox and Friends."

And he suggested he may bring up Clinton's husband Bill's past sexual indiscretions in their next debate.

"I may hit her harder in certain ways. I really eased up because I didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings."

Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway praised Trump's tone and demeanor.

"I was glad that he was polite and a gentleman to her, particularly at the end when he pulled the biggest punch of all," Conway said.

With six weeks until election day, Trump was also on the move Tuesday, jetting to Florida to speak to supporters in the critical swing state.

During the debate at New York's Hofstra University, with an anticipated audience of up to 100 million, Clinton repeatedly questioned her rival's fitness to serve in the Oval Office.

She painted the celebrity real estate mogul as fatally out of touch and willing to say "crazy things" to get elected.

"You live in your own reality," said the 68-year-old Democrat, who sought to project her steady experience.

On Monday night Trump played the populist bruiser, pitching to frustrated blue-collar voters fed up with establishment politicians.

"Let me tell you, Hillary has experience. But it's bad, bad experience," said the 70-year-old billionaire.

- 'Imperfect performance' -

"A lot of Americans will look at tonight's debate and see an individual who is prepared to become president of the United States, and she was up against an impostor," said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"You saw not a perfect performance by Hillary Clinton, but as much as an imperfect performance as you can imagine by her opponent," he told AFP.

Clinton's brightest moments came when debate turned to foreign policy, while Trump shined when he tapped into malaise about politics and the economy.

Trump squarely blamed Clinton and the political class for losing jobs to Mexico and China through what he termed bad trade deals and incompetence.

Clinton tried to undercut Trump's CEO-in-chief acumen by accusing him of having "stiffed" small business contractors throughout his career.

Clinton has a massive organizational advantage, a bigger campaign war chest and a lead in the popular vote and is in a notably stronger position state-by-state.

But Trump weathered allegations of bigotry and sexism to triumph in a vicious Republican primary campaign, and now has a real shot at being sworn in as the 45th president on January 20.

There are two more debates in the 2016 race, which could be pivotal in deciding whether Clinton will become the first woman president, or if Trump can pull off the greatest coup in US political history.

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