By Steve Holland and John Whitesides
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (Reuters) - Republican Donald Trump vowed on Tuesday to hit rival Democrat Hillary Clinton harder in the next U.S. presidential debate after she put him on the defensive by accusing him of being racist, sexist and a tax dodger during their first matchup.
Trump, a real estate mogul making his first run for public office, praised himself for not attacking Clinton about the marital infidelity of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, but said in a Tuesday morning interview with Fox News that he may take up the attack line going forward.
"I may hit her harder in certain ways," Trump said in a telephone interview with "Fox & Friends." Trump added that when Clinton criticized him for his treatment of women, he resisted. "I was going to hit her with her husband's women. And I decided I shouldn't do it because her daughter was in the room."
Clinton was under pressure to perform well on Monday night after a recent bout with pneumonia and an erosion in recent weeks in her lead over Trump in opinion polls. One line of attack was Trump's past remarks about women, a message designed to resonate with women who have not yet decided who to vote for and who could prove pivotal in deciding the Nov. 8 White House election.
Trump, a former reality TV star who eschewed a lot of debate practice, was assertive and focused early on, interrupting Clinton repeatedly. As the night wore on, he became testy and less disciplined in front of the crowd at host Hofstra University and a televised audience that may have reached upwards of a record 100 million people.
Clinton's campaign manager, Robby Mook, said on CNN on Tuesday that Trump wanted to steer the political debate away from the policy issues that Clinton is better prepared to discuss.
“Trump wants to talk about anything but the actual issues that people care about and that's because he didn't prepare. He didn't show up ready to talk about the things that matter in people's lives,” Mook said.
A CNN/ORC snap poll said 62 percent of respondents felt Clinton won and 27 percent believed Trump was the winner.
Trump complained on Tuesday that issues from Clinton's 2009-2013 tenure as secretary of state were not addressed on Monday night, including topics he has assailed her on such as her use of a private computer server for government emails, a deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the Clinton Foundation charity.
In signs that investors awarded the debate to Clinton, Asian shares recovered after an early bout of nerves while the Mexican peso jumped on Tuesday. U.S. equity markets kicked off their session with a modest gain but the advance was restrained by weakness in energy stocks as oil prices fell 2.5 percent. Clinton’s chances in the election also improved in online betting markets.
'HANGING AROUND' BEAUTY CONTESTS
Clinton, the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party, seemed to pique Trump when she brought up how Trump has insulted women. She pointed to Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe, saying Trump had repeatedly insulted her.
"He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them and he called this one 'Miss Piggy' and then he called her 'Miss Housekeeping,'" she said.
Trump, former owner of the Miss Universe pageants, was asked on Tuesday morning about Clinton's comments. He said he knew Machado and defended his insults of the woman.
"She was the winner and she gained a massive amount of weight," Trump said of Machado. "And it was a real problem. We had a real problem. Not only that - her attitude - and we had a real problem with her." Venezuelan-born Machado was Miss Universe in 1996.
"You feel good tonight?" Clinton asked supporters afterward. "I sure do. We had a great debate."
Trump, 70, declared himself the winner to reporters at the debate site.
The 68-year-old Clinton relentlessly sought to raise questions about her opponent's temperament, business acumen and knowledge.
Trump used much of his time to argue the former first lady and U.S. senator had achieved little in public life and wanted to pursue policies begun by President Barack Obama that he said have failed to repair a shattered middle class, with jobs lost to outsourcing and excessive government regulation.
Trump suggested her disavowal of a trade deal with Asian countries was insincere. Her handling of a nuclear deal with Iran and Islamic State militancy were disasters, he argued. Trump said Clinton had spent her "entire adult life" fighting the Islamic State, a group that has existed for less than a decade.
In one of their more heated exchanges, Clinton accused Trump of promulgating a "racist lie" by suggesting Obama, the first African-American U.S. president, was not born in the United States.
The president, who was born in Hawaii, released a long-form birth certificate in 2011 to put the issue to rest. It was not until this month that Trump said publicly that he believed Obama was U.S.-born.
"He has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen. There was absolutely no evidence for it. But he persisted. He persisted year after year," Clinton said.
Trump repeated his false accusation that Clinton's failed 2008 presidential campaign against Obama started the so-called "birther" issue.
"Nobody was pressing it, nobody was caring much about it ... I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate and I think I did a good job," Trump said.
'TRYING TO HIDE'
Trying to get under Trump's skin, Clinton suggested her opponent was refusing to release his tax returns to avoid showing Americans he paid next to nothing in federal taxes or that he is not as wealthy as he says he is.
"It must be something really important, even terrible, that he’s trying to hide," she said.
Trump fought back, saying that as a businessman, paying low taxes was important.
"That makes me smart," Trump said.
"I have a tremendous income," he said, adding that it was about time that someone running the country knew something about money. He said he would release his tax documents after a government audit.
Trump sniffed loudly at times - although he said on Tuesday that he did not have a cold - attracting a sideshow in social media attention.
Trump sought to deflect criticism of his debate performance on Tuesday morning, arguing that some of the questions asked by moderator Lester Holt were unfair.
"I think I really did well when we were asked normal questions," Trump said.
During the debate, Trump darkly hinted at wanting to say something but stopped short. Afterwards, he told reporters he had held back from raising Bill Clinton's sex scandals.
"I was going to say something extremely tough to Hillary and her family and I said I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. It's inappropriate. It’s not nice," he said.
Trump himself had a high-profile affair with Marla Maples, the woman who would be his second wife while he was still married to his first wife, Ivanka Trump. He eventually divorced Maples and married his third and current wife, Melania Trump.
There was much speculation before the debate about how much debate moderator Holt would intervene to correct facts. The NBC News anchorman largely left the candidates to fight it out, interjecting a few times to set the record straight.
Trump repeated his campaign assertion that he opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, despite having voiced support for it in a 2002 interview. “The record shows otherwise,” Holt challenged him. “The record does not show that,” Trump shot back.
(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker, Ginger Gibson, Luciana Lopez, Roberta Rampton, Emily Stephenson, Alana Wise, Doina Chiacu and Dan Burns; Writing by Jeff Mason and Ginger Gibson; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Frances Kerry)