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Why Clinton went for the kill

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Instead of playing it safe, with a big lead in polls, Clinton went for the kill, say surrogates for the Democratic presidential nominee.

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She was aggressive throughout the 90-minute matchup, going after Trump on everything from his statements about women to immigration, the issue at the center of his campaign.

She ridiculed Trump for exporting jobs, mocked his use of Chinese steel in building projects, warned he would be a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and corrected him when he said he had not insulted the looks of women accusing him of sexual transgressions, using his own words against him.

It was a surprising performance from a politician routinely labeled as safe to a fault. 

It comes as Clinton is making a concerted effort to win traditionally Republican states such as Arizona, Utah and Georgia, which are all in play thanks to Trump’s weak stretch on the campaign trail. Underscoring the effort, first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaJill Biden, Kate Middleton to meet this week Jill Biden to focus on military families on foreign trip Book claims Trump believed Democrats would replace Biden with Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama in 2020 election MORE, arguably the campaign’s most powerful surrogate, will speak in Phoenix on Thursday for Clinton.

Sending the first lady to a red state a little more than two weeks from Election Day and coming out firing at Trump at the debate are part of the same plan, say Clinton allies and Democratic observers. She wants to win big.

“She wants a big mandate,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon, who is not connected to the Clinton campaign.

“She just doesn’t want to win, she wants to win big to establish a mandate. The more electoral and popular votes, the merrier.”

Many people expected Clinton to coast on Wednesday night in Las Vegas.

At the previous debate, on Oct. 9, Clinton appeared to pull her punches at times, not wanting to take any unnecessary risks. Some allies acknowledge she didn’t come after Trump hard enough and “put the nail in the coffin,” as one top Democrat close to the campaign said. 

Since then, polls suggest Clinton’s strength is growing. She has a 6.4 percentage point lead in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls. RealClearPolitcs also labels states worth 260 electoral votes as either solid, likely or leaning Democrat — putting Clinton close to the 270-vote threshold needed for victory.

Not counting swing states, the political poll tracker projects Clinton will win 333 electoral votes. And Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, is projecting that Clinton will win 352 electoral votes.

On Wednesday night, Clinton stepped on to the stage at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas with an air of confidence. She decided to take the fight to Trump and was happy with how the night played out.

Supporters of Clinton say it was important to give a performance that would motivate her supporters to come to the polls while hopefully moving undecided voters off the couch.

This was especially important against Trump, who has had a fervent base of support.

“The No. 1 thing that most people have been concerned about is that Hillary is running against someone with a lot of energy behind his movement. The energy is probably 40 percent higher than ours,” one top Clinton surrogate and longtime friend of the nominee acknowledged.

“We had to do something in order to get these people sitting on the fence and in hold-their-nose mode, she had to prove that there was something about her they wanted to be a part of, and I think it worked.”

Part of Clinton’s strategy was to repeatedly get inside Trump’s head.

“I think she very deftly provoked him into punching himself,” said one longtime Clinton adviser. “She used trigger words to get him going, like how he ‘choked’ in his meeting with the Mexican president, how he is Putin’s ‘puppet’ how he whined, and almost every time he took the bait.”

Each time Clinton baited Trump, her allies said it helped prove their central argument against him: “the fact that he is not to be trusted with the responsibility of power. He can’t handle himself. He isn’t disciplined.” 

“If he were allowed to have an incident-free 90 minutes, it could risk undercutting the main thrust of the campaign against him,” the adviser said. 

The biggest moment of the debate was one outside Clinton’s hands.

Moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump whether he would respect Election Day’s results given his allegations that the election is being "rigged" against him. Trump refused to say he would, instead saying he would keep the nation in suspense.

“He had to have prepped for that, and could easily have had a response that didn't ripple the waters at all, but it's almost like he wanted to help be the cause of his own demise,” the adviser added. 

Clinton was ready with a response, calling Trump’s remarks "horrific."

“I don’t think there’s been a clearer example of that than stoking fears about voter fraud and questioning the legitimacy of an election before it has taken place,” a former Clinton aide said. “In the sense that she went for the kill, she did so by underscoring just how bonkers Trump is, and by contrast through her own performance, showing what presidential leadership actually looks like. 

Some Clinton surrogates said there was even a deeper message in the Wednesday night performance. Clinton wanted to show she’s not as cautious as people make her out to be.

“People treat her like she’s a boring politician. They make her sound like someone from 'The Ed Sullivan Show,' like she’s analog in the world of digital,” the surrogate said. “What she showed everyone last night is that she has a change-up ball that few have ever seen.”