There was a moment in the first presidential debate tonight when I was leaning forward in my chair, waiting through the interminable top of the inning before my team came up to bat, because I just knew the clean-up hitter was going to knock it out of the park.
Lester Holt asked Hillary Clinton a question about cybersecurity. "Our institutions are under cyber attack, and our secrets are being stolen," he said, as if no one on the stage had stored classified national security information about pending drone strikes on a non-secure server in the bathroom in the basement. "So my question is, who's behind it? And how do we fight it? Secretary Clinton, this answer goes to you."
Secretary Clinton answered the question with smooth phrases about hacking groups and cyber warfare and the troubling attacks from "organs of states" like Russia.
And as she talked about how this is "one of the biggest challenges facing the next president," I waited for Donald Trump's answer to the same question, certain that he would not miss this perfect opportunity to attack the hypocrisy and recklessness of his rival on the subject of cybersecurity.
And then, he didn't do it.
Instead, he talked about the 200 admirals and generals who have endorsed him, with more coming next week, and the endorsement he has received from ICE and the border patrol agents. He called Clinton's supporters "political hacks that I see that have led our country so brilliantly over the last 10 years with their knowledge," adding, "Look at the mess that we're in."
And then he talked about the hack of the Democratic National Committee. "What did we learn with DNC?" he asked. "We learned that Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of by your people, by Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Look what happened to her. But Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of. That's what we learned."
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the next president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.
He could have made a bickering soundbite that Democrats could have answered with one of their well-worn spin lines like, "Republicans have been attacking the Clintons for decades and never one shred of evidence of a capital crime...." Okay, I added that last part. But you get the idea.
Instead, Trump used the opportunity to undermine Hillary Clinton's most potentially damaging argument against him -- that he's not up to the job of commander-in-chief -- by citing hundreds of admirals and generals who think he'd be just fine, thank you. And then he did something brilliant.
Think along with Trump.
Bernie Sanders' supporters are not showing up at rallies to see Bernie Sanders support Hillary Clinton. He's talking to two rows of people and ten rows of chairs in city after city.
Donald Trump made a play for the Sanders voters tonight.
If you voted for Bernie Sanders and you were home watching this debate, feeling depressed about these two choices, Donald Trump said hello to you, personally, this evening. He echoed your thoughts and said he agreed with you. He said you were right to be upset.
And while you were watching, he put these thoughts into your head: he doesn't want the U.S. to be the policeman of the world and he insists he didn't support the Iraq war, which is more than Hillary Clinton can say. Hmmm. What's this about bad trade deals and more jobs?
Maybe it won't work, but it was a brilliant try.
Looking over the rest of the debate transcript, there were more appeals to Democratic voting blocs. Trump spoke about Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania, and how he would bring back jobs and keep U.S. jobs from leaving.
He made a move on Jewish Democrats by saying Benjamin Netanyahu is not happy with the Iran deal.
He made a play for African-American and Hispanic residents of America's cities by talking about the issue of neighborhood safety, and the betrayal, election after election, by (Democratic) politicians.
He even reached out for coal-state voters by ridiculing Hillary Clinton's view that global warming is the most serious threat facing the nation.
The pundits I saw on TV were yammering about undecided voters and third-party voters and college-educated white men who don't like either candidate.
But Donald Trump was going after the Democrats.
Every vote he takes from Hillary Clinton's column counts twice. One less for her, one more for him.
In close states, it could be the difference.
What he said tonight wasn't new. He's been in African-American churches and coal states and cities where factories have packed up and left. He's said all these things to all these groups around the country already.
And guess what: While Hillary Clinton was spending hundreds of millions of dollars on attack ads against Trump, he was rising steadily in the polls. The race is a dead heat.
Trump passed up several opportunities to attack Clinton tonight on subjects that would have dominated the news coverage for days: the e-mails, the Clinton family history of abusing selected women, the Clinton Foundation and its connections to State Department access for donors.
He may be through with those topics. He's got a new goal.
He's dismantling the coalition that elected Barack Obama twice.
And that's today's post-debate edition of "Think Along with Trump."
Susan Shelley is a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group. Reach her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @Susan_Shelley.