Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump traded insults and sparred over temperament, stamina and judgement Monday, in a fiery US presidential debate that often saw the Republican on the back foot.
With six weeks until election day and polls showing a virtual dead heat, Clinton repeatedly questioned her rival's fitness to serve in the Oval Office.
Before an anticipated television audience of up to 100 million, Clinton 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, accusing Trump of launching his political career on the "racist lie" that Barack Obama is not American.
As Clinton projected steady experience, Trump played the populist bruiser, pitching to frustrated blue-collar voters fed up with politicians.
"Let me tell you, Hillary has experience. But it's bad, bad experience," quipped the billionaire, accusing the former secretary of state, first lady and US senator of being a "typical politician. All talk, no action. Sounds good, doesn't work."
The 70-year-old Trump has faced tough questions about his temperament during a deeply polarizing 15-month campaign that has brought rightwing populism to the American political mainstream.
He began the keenly awaited debate at New York's Hofstra University with a restrained tone. But as the temperature rose, he brought out the verbal brickbats, repeatedly interrupting Clinton and even questioning her stamina after a bout of pneumonia.
Trump appeared to get increasingly irritated and riled, at one point rolling his eyes and emitting a frustrated "ugh."
In a snap CNN poll of 521 voters, 62 percent judged that Clinton had won the debate against 27 percent for Trump.
John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told AFP that "hands down, Clinton looked better than Trump."
"You don't have to think that her performance was perfect, but the unique part of a presidential debate is that you don't have to excel, you just have to do better than the only other person on stage."
Howard Fineman, Global Editorial Director of The Huffington Post said, "Republican nominee Donald Trump turned in the worst ― and I mean worst ― debate performance in modern times. It was so bad that in a normal year, it would disqualify him from getting anywhere near the White House."
Franklin Foer of Slate wrote, "Monday night... his improvisational skills failed him—and he slammed up against the limits of his political talents. He came into the debate with a reasonable strategy: Talk about trade and narrowcast his message to the three Rust Belt swing states that could snake him past 270. The script held for nearly 10 minutes, but he didn’t have much of a strategy beyond that opening riff."
Michael Gerson wrote in The Washington Post, "Trump concluded his performance by praising himself for his own grace and restraint, during an evening that showed him to be nasty, witless and deceptive."
Thomas L Friedman wrote for The New York Times, "Trump promises change, but change that comes from someone who thinks people who pay taxes are suckers and who thinks he can show up before an audience of 100 million without preparation or real plans and talk about serious issues with no more sophistication than your crazy uncle — and expect to get away with it — is change the country can’t afford."
Ezra Klein of Vox wrote, "He (Trump) was speaking on the issues where he’s supposed to be strongest — his whole pitch is he’s a businessman who knows how the economy really works and what is really needed to fix it — and he showed he didn’t have any real idea what he was talking about."
Meanwhile, Trump gave himself an upbeat assessment of his debate outing, telling AFP: "I thought it went very well for me."
"We've been having an awfully good run and I think this continues it — according to all the online polls, you see what's happening there? Through the roof."
With inputs from AFP