Monday's presidential debate was perhaps the most interesting I've ever seen, in that no candidate has ever failed so spectacularly. Clinton played a very smart rope-a-dope strategy, provoking Trump to overpunch, then to leave himself open for some vicious right crosses at the end of the debate. Some have criticized Clinton for not seizing on certain moments, but I saw a canny pugilist who knew to wait until later in the debate, when Trump was woozy and unable to effectively counterpunch. As in all things, Clinton is smart, cautious, and has checked out all the angles. (Of course, this means that she can at times be unoriginal or suffer from hubris.)
However, while Trump was talking with a fifth grade vocabulary at the beginning of the debate, a few of his jabs landed and some of his defenses were effective. He also played it smart when Clinton talked about subsidized child care, and pretended that his plan was very similar, even though it's not, because he knows he loses white women's votes on that issue. While his understanding of trade is weak, he pushed Clinton pretty effectively on it. Her worst moment of the night was responding to his comments on NAFTA with "that's your opinion," forgetting that it's an opinion shared by a lot of Democrats. Clinton then deftly started poking the Donald on personal issues, and that's when his tightly-wound mask of civility at the start of the debate completely fell off, revealing the petulant, self-absorbed, angry child beneath.
Trump has two weeks to lick his wounds and to figure out how to fight next time. It is obvious from the NAFTA exchange that Clinton has a weakness: she tries to bat away attacks on issues where she is vulnerable with pat remarks. (She did the same thing with the email issue.) If Trump can consistently hammer away on these issues, those responses can look dishonest or arrogant, reinforcing the qualities people like least about her.
Trump needs to develop enough discipline to stay focused on those two issues, and to not get derailed by birtherism, lying about his record on the Iraq War, or his sexism. He needs his own pat answers to quell conversation on those issues so that he can get on to harping on trade and emails. If the debate ground is shifted to be about those issues, Trump wins. As any experienced debater knows, establishing the ground practically determines the outcome. The best debaters win by dragging their opponents onto their own ground, which is something Clinton did very well.
Here's the thing, though: I don't think Trump will be able to pull it off. Doing so would require a lot of hard work, practice, and discipline, things he is totally averse to. He lost bad on Monday in large part because Hillary was training like a champion and he was fucking around like a feckless frat boy. Even if he tries practicing, his personality is immutable. He is incredibly impulsive, incapable of controlling himself and his big dumb mouth. Clinton will keep jabbing him on his personal life and business dealings, and his little misogynist manboy lizard brain will start going into rage spasms. He is more likely to go into the next debate ready to dredge up Bill Clinton's affairs, which I think will backfire big time, since I assume Clinton has some flamethrower-hot responses to that line of attack waiting to be unleashed.
Coming into the debates, I think people overestimated Trump's ability because of his manifest mastery of television as a medium. The problem for him is that presidential debates in the general election are a throwback to a pre-TV era where two people have to make substantive arguments, not just provide entertainment. Trump's entertainer approach worked in the circus-like atmosphere of the GOP debates, not so well in the much more serious and more reality-grounded realm of the general election debate. It is simply a test that this con artist is not intellectually or emotionally equipped to pass, and thank God for that.