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Trump, Clinton have work to do to make Utah voters 'comfortable' following debate

FILE — Lezlie Adler watches the presidential debate during a debate party hosted by the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. Adler said she wanted to be with a diverse group of people while watching the debate to experience the
FILE — Lezlie Adler watches the presidential debate during a debate party hosted by the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. Adler said she wanted to be with a diverse group of people while watching the debate to experience the reactions.
Nick Wagner, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton likely still have work to do to win over Utah voters after turning in what was largely seen as a pair of predictable performances in the first of three presidential debates.

"I think the only real takeaways were that it's still just a weird race," said Sutherland Institute President Boyd Matheson. "Hillary failed to connect. Donald failed to prove he knows what he's talking about."

Matheson said Utahns who tuned into Monday night's 90-minute debate saw little to change the perceptions they already hold of the candidates — and little reason to get more excited about the presidential race.

Still, both candidates have a chance to see if they can reverse their unpopularity with Utah voters in the remaining debates, set for Oct. 9 in St. Louis and Oct. 19 in Las Vegas.

While polls show Trump is ahead of Clinton in Utah, about a third of voters have said they don't support either major party candidate. Trump and Clinton both finished far behind the other choices in Utah's March presidential preference caucus voting.

Trump's campaign is confident enough of a Utah victory that a state director put in place this summer has been deployed to Michigan. Clinton's campaign continues to work for Utah votes, bringing in surrogates such as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who endorsed Trump in March, said voters in Utah "have landed on their preference. Can people be more comfortable with that choice? Absolutely."

Hughes said Trump could have made his points in the debate more effectively to Utah voters by showing more "optimism, that he is here for the people," especially when it comes to the economy.

"I think they heard Donald Trump discuss issues with the traits of a true outsider. Was it as polished as Hillary Clinton? No," Hughes said, noting that being "high-spirited or even confrontational is a turnoff to voters in Utah."

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, a longtime Clinton supporter, said the former secretary of state was able in the debate to reassure Utah voters she's "the more fit of the two, physically and mentally," by staying calm and collected.

"I don't think she has anything to improve on, on that front," Wilson said, citing a moment in the debate where Clinton recounted unflattering comments Trump had made about a former Miss Universe winner.

"I don't know that Donald Trump has it in him to listen or be prepared," Wilson said, suggesting that he "has to sit down, learn a little bit more, become more humble" in the next debate, while Clinton is "in a pretty good position."

Omar Guevara, Weber State University director of debate, said neither candidate was able to "ring the bell" with Utah voters. But Guevara said Trump needs to display more maturity at their next encounter.

Utah voters are "set at a deep default to decorum, fair play and decency in the moment, and candidate Trump has a real problem with all of that," he said, but polishing up his rhetoric for the next debate would "go a long way."

Clinton has room for improvement, too, the debate coach said. Guevara said Utah voters want to see her use more "we and us language. She needs to close the empathetic deficit with her audience."

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said while there were times during the debate when Trump appeared more reserved and presidential, he also "had a tone that he wanted to pick a fight."

Burbank noted a "sore point" with Utah voters, Trump's controversial stands on immigration which have included a proposed ban on Muslims entering the country, did not come up Monday.

He predicted neither candidate will get much of a boost from the first debate, unlike the enthusiasm generated after 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney debated President Barack Obama for the first time.

"Going into that debate, there were questions about Romney," Burbank said, but Romney's sharp contrast with Obama gave him temporary momentum in the race. "Debates do have the potential of changing the dynamic."

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