- Reactions - In a snap CNN poll of 521 voters, 62 percent judged that Clinton had won the debate against 27 percent for Trump.
John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told AFP that "hands down, Clinton looked better than Trump."
"You don't have to think that her performance was perfect, but the unique part of a presidential debate is that you don't have to excel, you just have to do better than the only other person on stage."
Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University, also praised Clinton's performance.
However, he said, "Trump more than held his own with an informal and often unorganized 'speech salad' where he mixed things in odd ways but often with humor, and cleverly."
Trump gave an upbeat assessment of his debate outing, telling AFP: "I thought it went very well for me."
"We've been having an awfully good run and I think this continues it -- according to all the online polls, you see what's happening there? Through the roof."
Clinton visited supporters who had attended a debate watch party in Westbury, New York, telling the crowd, "Do you feel good tonight? Well, I sure do... We had a great debate."
- 'Stiffed' - If Clinton's brightest moments came when debate turned to foreign policy, Trump's came when he tapped into rich seams of malaise about politics and the economy.
"Our country is suffering because people like secretary Clinton have made such bad decisions in terms of our jobs," he charged.
Trump squarely blamed Clinton and the political class for losing jobs to Mexico and China through what he termed bad trade deals and incompetence.
Clinton tried to undercut Trump's CEO-in-chief acumen by accusing him of having "stiffed" small businesses throughout his career.
She demanded Trump honor tradition and release his tax returns, suggesting he may be lying about his much-vaunted wealth, his charitable donations, his tax bill or his ties with foreign benefactors.
She also accused him of backing an economic platform amounting to "the most extreme" package of tax cuts for the wealthy in US history.
"I call it trumped up trickle-down, because that's exactly what it would be," she quipped.
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Trump fired back that he would release his tax returns, "when she releases her 33,000 e-mails that have been deleted," alluding to the Democrat's use of a private email server as secretary of state.
- A real shot - Trump's biggest handicap may be accusations that he has a weak grasp of policy -- which he sought to counter by accusing his rival of sowing chaos in the Middle East during her tenure as secretary of state.
But he appeared on shaky ground as he defended his refusal to reveal his plan for defeating the Islamic State group.
"You're telling the enemy everything you want to do. No wonder you've been fighting ISIS your entire adult life," he said of the group that only came to prominence in the last decade.
Clinton has a massive organizational advantage, a bigger campaign war chest and a lead in the popular vote and is in a notably stronger position state-by-state.
But Trump weathered allegations of bigotry and sexism to triumph in a vicious Republican primary campaign, and now has a real shot at being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on January 20.
There are two more debates in the 2016 US presidential race, which could be pivotal in deciding whether Clinton will become the first woman president, or if Trump can pull off the greatest upset in US political history.