[COLUMBUS, Ohio] Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump clashed over the US economy as they opened their first presidential debate, both calling for steps to create jobs and raise wages but differing significantly on the solutions.
The former secretary of state presented Mr Trump as being part of the cause of the housing crisis that was at the heart of the recession. "Donald was one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis," she said.
"That's called business, by the way," Mr Trump interjected, as Mrs Clinton was made her case against him.
Mr Trump lashed out at trade with China and Mexico as he has throughout the campaign. He said the US was being put at a disadvantage. China, he said, is "using our country as a piggy bank.''
Mrs Clinton responded that Mr Trump's economic plan is the "most extreme version'' of standard Republican rhetoric. "I call it Trumped up trickle-down.'' The event at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, marked the first time that voters got to see the major-party nominees on the same stage for a widely anticipated debate that promised to be a pivotal moment in a close and bitterly fought contest.
Among those in the audience were the spouses of the candidates, former president Bill Clinton and Melania Trump, who shook hands before they were seated. Moderator Lester Holt, of NBC News admonished the audience to refrain from cheering or clapping during the 90-minute session.
Heading into the debate, staged 43 days from the Nov 8 election, Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton are tied at 46 per cent in a head-to-head contest among likely voters, according to the latest Bloomberg Politics national poll.
Mr Trump, the Republican nominee, gets 43 per cent to Democrat Clinton's 41 per cent when third-party candidates are included.
The uncertainty about the election outcome and soft support for both candidates raise the stakes for the debate, the first of three scheduled, said Frank Fahrenkopf Jr, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Viewers will be watching for revealing moments about Mr Trump's temperament and depth of knowledge on issues and whether Mrs Clinton can convey trustworthiness that surveys suggest many voters doubt, he said.
"I think it's going to have a bigger effect probably than any debate we've had in a long, long time," Mr Fahrenkopf said.
A third of registered voters said the debates will be important to their decision in the presidential race, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted Sept 16-19.
With the partisan lines hardening as the election draws closer, Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump are looking to appeal to a segment of voters, between 3 and 10 per cent depending on the poll, who say they are undecided between the two candidates. In a race as tight as this one, a movement of a few percentage points in that group to one candidate or the other could mean a margin of victory.
Mrs Clinton has an additional target audience: those who so far aren't motivated and aren't likely to vote on Nov 8. For the first time, the Bloomberg survey asked unlikely voters who they would back if they did vote.
What it showed is greater support for Mrs Clinton than Mr Trump among that group and that they have a profile skewed to typical demographic strongholds for Democrats.
Also raising the pressure on the candidates are polls consistently showing that more than half of voters view both of them negatively, said Ben Ginsberg, a former Republican National Committee counsel who has helped negotiate terms for past presidential debates and prepare candidates. Debates give them a chance to recast the impressions voters have formed of them in the past months of campaigning.
"These stand to be pivotal moments in the campaign, just because these are the two least popular candidates in history," Mr Ginsberg said. "So each one gets a second chance to make a first impression, really." Both campaigns sought before the debate started to manage expectations, with Mr Trump complaining in advance that the media coverage will favour Mrs Clinton and Mrs Clinton suggesting that Mr Trump will be held to a lower standard in judging who wins.
Mrs Clinton faces a higher bar to clear, according to the Bloomberg poll, which was released Monday. Forty-nine per cent say they anticipate the former secretary of state will perform better, while 39 per cent say that for Mr Trump.
Absent from Monday night's debate were Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and the Green Party's Jill Stein.
Neither reached the threshold of 15 per cent average support in recognised polls to qualify under the debate commission's rules.
Counting people who will watch on television and on computers and mobile devices, viewership could exceed 100 million, Mr Fahrenkopf said.
The record for televised debates is 80.6 million for the 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, according to Nielsen.