Road to the Oval Office Podcast: First Debate Analysis

Following the first debate, Mark Alderman, Howard Schweitzer and Blake Rutherford analyzed the candidates' performance and discussed next steps on the campaign trail.

Blake: Thank you very much and thanks to everyone who has joined us today for our discussion of, our continued discussion of the 2016 presidential race. My name is Blake Rutherford and as always, I'm joined by Mark Alderman, the CEO of Cozen O'Connor Public Strategies and Howard Schweitzer, the managing partner of Cozen O'Connor Public Strategies. Mark, Howard great to be with you guys.

Howard: Good to be back, Blake.

Mark: Thanks, Blake.

Blake: Last night was, and we had been talking about this for weeks, our sort of main event in this general election race. We made it through the summer. We turned the corner past Labor Day. Mark came back to the mainland from his hiatus on Nantucket and we

Mark: Bad decision by me.

Blake: Right, bad decision by you. We got serious about this race and we got serious about it in the context of money. We got serious about in the context of advertising and then we got really serious about it in the context of debates. Last night was the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the first time where we got to see these two candidates onstage, uninterrupted by commercials, unbothered by other candidates, just the two of them and a moderator at Hofstra University in New York and they went at it for 90 minutes.

To set the stage because certainly I want to begin with your perspectives on the debate but I want to set the stage. It looks like the numbers will be, we'll get the final numbers later today but it looks like the debate last night was a 46.2 rating, a 63 share for people who aren't in television to give you some context to that, it looks like about 100 million people tuned in on television. That doesn't include streaming and it also doesn't include PBS. How does that compare? Obama/Romney in 2012 was roughly about 70 million people. The Super Bowl this year was 111 million people. A lot of eyeballs on this debate last night. I want to start Mark, with you. You're joining us from Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, a state that got a lot of attention in last night's debate. Initial thoughts, reactions to what you say last night between Trump and Clinton.

Mark: I think, Blake two things happened last night. I think both sides have to be honest about both things. Thing number one is that she just cleaned his clock on that stage. It was Clinton by a mile according to any metrics of presidential debating. However, thing number two that happened was that she debated Donald Trump and Donald Trump has violated every law of presidential politics and is meanwhile at least as of yesterday, within a point or two of his opponent in the election to be President of the United States. I think we're going to have to wait to see what her cleaning his clock means. I think it's going to mean a little bit but not a whole lot. I would expect it to move the needle a point or two. That's not a great bump but if you're in a tight race and you're a point or two ahead and you pick up another point or two, you double your lead and that's what I would expect to see.

Blake: Howard, your perspective. What did you take away from Trump/Clinton last night?

Howard: I think people outside the bubble of politics and government that we live in, she certainly did well and got the better of him but people outside our bubble, I think were kind of disgusted by the whole thing and don't really continue to look very favorably on either one of them. I don't think either one of them improved their favorables or unfavorables. I think the one thing, look there's all this next day hooha, everybody getting all excited about who won and who lost and the polling around that and all that. I think the major thing when people reflect on last night is going to be the realization that this guy vanquished 16 candidates on the Republican side, just wiped them away like they were nothing and they couldn't handle him and she stood up there last night and handled him. Lester kind of disappeared as I thought he should have and would and she handled him. She won, she beat him in a debate. I think when people reflect on last night and what it means, that's going to sink in and help her because it makes her look strong.

Blake: It's interesting to me, Mark and I want to pull you back into this notion of our desire to chart a winner and a loser in the context of these debates. Clearly, you mentioned that by every metric of presidential debates, she won. There's a lot of data floating around today about quantifying what her performance really means. Just to give you a snapshot of that, Frank Luntz' focus group in Pennsylvania, undecided voters, 21 of them when 16-5 for Hillary. In Florida, 29 undecided voters, 11 for Hillary, 18 said neither candidate won, but zero though Trump won. A CNN national flash poll had Hillary winning the debate 62 to 27 and a Public Policy Polling poll had Hillary winning 51-40. Politico's Insider Caucus, which is a consortium of political insiders all across the country, in battle ground states 8 of 10 said Hillary won and of that 57% of Republicans thought Hillary won the debate. When we talk about winning the debate, though Mark, what are we really talking about? It's a question I struggle with. What does it mean to win a presidential debate?

Mark: I think what it meant last night to Secretary Clinton is not all those numbers, she won by this, she won by that. Some people somehow even thought she didn't win. That to me is unintelligible but I think what it meant to her last night is she stopped her slide. She was sliding. They were tied going into August. She blew out a double digit lead. It then collapsed and got very tight. He was trending better than he was. She was sliding down and she turned the tide last night. I think apart from any quantification, I think what happened is she got back on her game and she got going in the right direction. She looked presidential, she sounded presidential, what she said was presidential. I think it is now a matter for her of not surrendering the momentum. Momentum means a lot. It's all about trend lines in these elections. I don't care if it's a point or two only, as long as she stopped the slide, turned it around, that was a big night for Hillary Clinton.

Blake: Howard, you bring a bit of a different perspective to this in the context of Hillary doing well, you also I think would agree there are things she didn't address. We've got two more debates, which is two more bites at this apple for Donald Trump whether he makes good use of that or not, we'll come back to in a minute. I do want to talk about, let's narrow our focus, get more into the micro. What these candidates did do well last night, what did they not do well. What do you think she didn't do well last night?

Howard: She didn't speak to the trust issue which is her Achilles heel. I don't think either of them spoke to their personal Achilles heels. I don't think she did anything to reassure voters that they can trust her.

Blake: Mark, what's your reaction to that?

Mark: Well, I don't agree. I think that her demeanor, her presence, her articulation, her intelligence, her command, she commanded that stage. She commanded that debate. I think she reassured people that she can be trusted as commander in chief. I think frankly that the biggest myth on Trump's part is that he didn't go at her on that much. She talked about the emails in the context of his tax returns. That was maybe his best moment in my opinion but she got a pass on the issues that would have been hardest for her to handle.

Howard: But Mark, my premise is that she has to address those issues to win this election. I completely agree that she looked competent but it's not a competence question, it's a trust question and those are two different things.

Mark: It's a question of what the American people are being asked to trust her with. If you're asking the American people to trust you with their country as the commander in chief, I think she did help herself a lot last night with her commanding presence. If the trust issue goes deeper and is about the damn emails and the CGI and the rest, you're right. She didn't touch that. She wasn't going to bring it up and neither did Lester Holt or Donald Trump.

Blake: Right.

Mark: I think that she dealt very well with what she was handed.

Blake: That's really where I wanted to take this. I was just surprised. I was keeping a list as I was watching this debate last night of what wasn't mentioned. We can talk about whether Lester Holt should have gone down this road, I don't want to turn this into too much of a debate over the moderator but I do think it matters. Here's what really wasn't mentioned. Other than Trump saying it once, the emails weren't mentioned. Nothing about the Clinton Foundation. The only mention of Benghazi came up when she said that she testified 11 hours before a congressional committee as a response to when Trump accused her of not having any stamina but the actual Benghazi wasn't mentioned. Libya, Trump brought it up. Basket of deplorables, not mentioned. Lots of things, Howard that I really expected either from the moderator or from Trump. I want you to sort of assess where you lay the blame here. One of the challenges to Mark's point is she did very well with what she was given but she wasn't given really the tough stuff.

Howard: That's fair.

Blake: I want to get your reaction to that.

Howard: Those are fair comments. I thought Lester Holt, that was his one real weak point. He gave her a chance to respond to the question to what he said about emails in the context of his taxes but he didn't ask her a question about that. The foundation, it's kind of shocking to me that those things didn't come up but it's equally shocking that Trump didn't bring them up. It just shows his lack of preparation. He could have pivoted off of any question, literally anything and found a way to bring this stuff up. It's surprising that he didn't. I think it's kind of weird because it's a long opportunity for him but in a strange way I also see it as a lost opportunity for her because I think she has to convince enough of the public that she can be trusted in order to take this thing home. She's got to answer these questions to do that.

Blake: Yeah, right. Mark, what are your thoughts? From a strategic standpoint, I counted a number of opportunities where I was just personally sort of baffled that Trump didn't seize the opportunity to talk about emails in the context of cyber security, to talk about the Clinton crime bill in the context of prisons and race, to not catch onto the Benghazi issue when she mentioned testifying for 11 hours. It really just seems like tactically, trump was out of his depth. I don't mean to opine, that's certainly not my job but as just a viewer ...

Mark: I'm happy to opine.

Blake: Yeah, right. React to that.

Mark: Trump was out of his depth. He doesn't know what he's talking about half the time. He didn't pivot when she was talking about the African-American incarceration issue. He didn't pivot as he of course could have to the Clinton crime bill which regrettably launched the age of mass incarceration of young Black men because he doesn't know anything about it. That's why he didn't pivot to it. I don't think it was so much that he made a tactical decision that proved not to be smart in the context of that debate. I think it's that he didn't know what he was talking about. I defy you to tell me what that man said about Japan and nuclear weapons or the hacking of the DNC emails. He was out of his depth. I will try not to opine beyond your words, Blake but the man was out of his depth. However, I will say this, in this ultra bizarre election that we are surreally experiencing, I don't think he lost a single vote last night. He just didn't pick any up.

Blake: Yeah, right. To borrow from Chuck Todd of NBC News who just continually said that was the most surreal political experience he's ever seen, sort of a tale of Hillary Clinton having one debate on one side and Trump another debate on another. Howard, we hear time and again when you get fascinated by it. There were endless news stories about how Hillary Clinton was preparing for this debate. Debate camps, what all that means. Then Trump sort of proudly saying, I'm not really doing much. Half of that I thought was gamesmanship, just another effort to lower expectations but it really does appear that he really wasn't doing much.

You've advised people across an array of government sectors for big moments. This was an enormous moment in Donald Trump's political life. How do you not get down in the weeds and get ready for this moment? Especially when, as we've talked about many times on these calls, there are opportunities for him to perform well. There are criticisms he could make of Hillary Clinton's candidacy and as Mark mentioned, the trend line was in his favor going into this debate. How do you ignore all that and just kind of wing it?

Howard: He hasn't prepared to be President, he hasn't prepared for anything. I also think he choked a little bit. I think he just stone cold choked. I think he looked nervous. He kept drinking water. He looked uncomfortable. Everybody is commenting on sniffling. I don't know, some of that I feel like any one of us with no preparation could have gotten up there and done a better job and that's easy to say when you don't have to get up in front of 100 million people and perform. Some of this is just basic media training 101. You block and you bridge to what you want to talk about. He didn't do that. It's bizarre.

Mark: Some of it is media training 101, he didn't prepare. He hasn't prepared to be president as Howard said and as Secretary Clinton said. Some of it was plainly that, some of it was that he just didn't know what to do or what he was talking about because he hadn't prepared. Some of it I believe is him, some of it is that she got to him and got to him early and stayed on him. He spent many, many minutes in that debate defending his business, defending his business record. It wasn't a 14 million dollar loan, it was a small amount of money. I settled the race discrimination case without any admission of guilt. All of that was because she got to him and instead of him talking about the election and her issues, he was defensive.

Howard: That's part of being unprepared. We said on our call last Thursday that she was going to try to undercut his success narrative. It's the easiest thing to see.

Mark: It's the easiest thing to see but it's not the easiest thing to deal with if you are in fact as narcissistic and vulnerable as Donald Trump is. How don't know how he could have prepared for that short of a massive psychiatric intervention, which he didn't have time for. I'll give him points for one thing, he got in a plug for his hotel. I thought that was clever.

Blake: He did. I'm going to swing by there after this call actually, in honor of him. It'll be good. I'm excited about. It's funny because Trump in this debate was the focus. Eight of ten Facebook posts about this debate were about Donald Trump.

Howard: Of course, that's why everybody was watching.

Blake: Exactly. We said this all along, people are going to tune in. Mark, you identified some examples of things that sort of put Trump on his heels. I want to come back to moments that really mattered to both of you last night. We have suggested and even talked about on these calls that these debates are as much about moments as anything else. I was wondering and I wanted to get your thoughts and Mark, I'll start with you. What was the one moment from this debate that you think stands out?

Mark: I think that the best moment on Secretary Clinton's side because it's what it is actually all about was when Trump took a shot a her for being off the campaign trail and she said, yes I've prepared for this debate and I have prepared to be president. That to me, was exactly the difference between these two candidates. I thought the worst moment for Trump, and there were many to choose from, but I think you're going to see this in ads over the next few weeks. When Secretary Clinton said, from what we know, you pay no taxes and he said because I'm smart. That doesn't sit well with the American taxpaying public. I think that was as low a point as he went in a generally poor performance.

Blake: Howard, moments?

Howard: I thought that she was exceptional on the looks and stamina question. As I said last Thursday, one of the things I felt she really had to do in this debate was speak to suburban women and between the combination of her answer to that question and just the narrative around the fact that she was able to deal with this guy when 15 men and one woman in the Republican field weren't, I think that is a really big deal for her. I thought that her low point was on the emails. I think he correctly called her out when she said it was a mistake to use a private server and he said that wasn't a mistake, that was intentional. He's right, of course. It wasn't a mistake, it was intentional and I thought that was the kind of moment that should have happened throughout this entire 90-minute so-called debate. It happened once and it didn't really happen a lot.

Blake: I think just to kind of add to what you've said, I think Trump really finds his stride when he starts talking about trade. Trade is a good issue for him. For all the things that he doesn't grasp that we've identified, he at least has found his voice on trade and I think he tried. I think to degree effectively drew contrasts over trade, drew contrasts over TTP and her position on that and what she's advised the President based on her position. Not to pile on Trump, I think to offer that as something that he did well. He also did it early in the debate before he got flustered.

Mark: He did it well, Blake and I think that was her weakest moment. I don't think she handled it well. She is exposed on flip flop and she didn't do a credible job of explaining herself. I agree I think his best moment was her worst moment. They were flip sides of the same coin there. I think that that issue is something that is a problem in Michigan, is a problem in Ohio.

Blake: That's where I was going with this. That's a battleground state issue.

Mark: Yup, no question.

Blake: Yeah Howard, please.

Howard: We should talk about whether people are actually going to change their votes based on what happened last night.

Blake: I want to come to that but before we get into what the electorate is going to do with this, I do want to stick with some of these moments because I think a lot of that is going to be contingent on what these campaigns do with the content that was generated in this debate. Mark, you mentioned the issue about paid no taxes and Trump's response of that makes me smart, which I think again, was a devastating moment for him. I think the other devastating moment that a wide swathe of the electorate can relate to was when she said that he rooted for the housing crisis and he responded and said, that's called business buddy. I think it's just a difficult sound bite for Trump that I could see finding its way onto the airwaves.

I wanted to mention that because I certainly don't feel like there was a negative soundbite moment for Hillary Clinton in that debate. We could cut a lot of ads and I suspect the Clinton campaign will very soon and get them out there, perhaps as early as today with what we saw there. As a segue Howard to you point about does this change minds and does this move the needle mark. You when we began the call, suggested it's probably a 1% but 1-2% doubles her lead and that's significant. Howard, I want to get your thoughts about what you think about the impact of this debate on the state of play.

Howard: I think it is an issue of momentum. I agree with Mark's point earlier that she stopped the bleeding. We've got six weeks from today, 42 days and that's a lot of time. We've got two more debates. I think we'll have just as many eyeballs on the TV screens and YouTube and wherever as we did last night. It's must see TV. I think there's still time for him to get his act together and learn from last night and come out strong. I think in a way, again I keep beating this horse, because she didn't have the chance last night to address some of the core concerns about her, I guess it's about her candidacy but about her, fundamentally about her. I think she's going to end up addressing that stuff later on, in later debates closer to the election. That has the potential to hurt her in a kind of roundabout way. I think she got the best of him. I think we all thought that this election was hers to lose and she didn't lose it last night, I just don't know that she won it.

Blake: Mark.

Mark: Let me just do a little arithmetic, if I may based on the 100 million viewers. 100 million Americans watched that debate. 40 million of them were for Trump going in and were for Trump coming out. 40 million of them were for her coming in and were for her going out. 10 million were for Gary Johnson or their next door neighbor and another 10 million were undecided. I think that Trump picked up no new votes last night and I think that Secretary Clinton might have moved a point or two of the Johnson voters her way. She might have moved a point or two of the undecided her way. She picked up a couple of points but she by no means won the election. I have been saying to all my friends and family since the debate ended last night, great night, she did what she needed to but anybody who thinks that this thing is even close to over just hasn't been paying attention to this bizarre, surreal ...

Blake: It's still all about getting out the vote. I think she was very good. If you watched until the end, I think she's very strong with suburban women in terms of pulling them out to vote. I think she had some good moments there. I don't think she was as strong. The birther debate so to speak was muddled and weak and strange and just bizarre but I think she wasn't particularly strong on the criminal justice kind of questions. I think he missed opportunities but her message just isn't that strong around that. I'm not sure that she necessarily pulled out other segments of the population that she needs to vote.

Howard: Notably, African-Americans.

Mark: There's going to be an enormous African-American turnout for this election and she is going to win the kind of percentage that Barack Obama did twice and she didn't need to do anything in that debate with that particular constituency although I think she did in the discussion about stop and frisk and policing. I think the millennials are the segment of the undecided or Gary Johnson vote. They probably got moved the least last night. I don't know that she did much for herself there although she did mention student loans ten times and that's a big millennial issue. I think if I had to identify a constituency where she helped herself a lot, I agree with you entirely, Howard, suburban white women I think she helped herself a lot with and a constituency where she didn't get much done was probably millennials.

Howard: She's still got a lot of work to do. She has to earn this thing.

Blake: We've talked about this. This is one of three. I would be interested, Howard you speculated that viewership for debates two and three will be just as high. Mark, I want to get your thoughts. Do you sense that the electorate continues to tune in? Ten days from now do we think 100 million or so will be all eyes focused on Clinton/Trump Two.

Mark: I would expect it to dip just a little, it may be 90 million instead of a 100 million. It's still going to be an unprecedented number, more than Obama/Romney four years ago because the race continues to fascinate and continues to challenge the electorate to make a choice.

Howard: Every race challenges the electorate to make a choice. The only reason viewership is so high is because of the guy running on the Republican side.

Mark: Right but I want to just say before we lose the point, there is a debate before the next debate, the vice presidential debate. I think because of the guy running on the other side and the strangeness of this cycle, I would expect to see unprecedented numbers watching that as well. I think that that is going to be another good night for the Clinton/Kaine ticket. I don't expect that Governor Pence is going to under perform anything like his candidate at the top of the ticket did but I'm putting in a plug here for Tim Kaine and I think a lot of people will watch and I think that will help the ticket a little bit also.

Blake: That's on October 5 for everybody listening. Howard, before I get to you, any comments or questions from anybody listening live, we'd love to hear from you. Howard, I want to get your perspective on the VP debate.

Howard: Snooze fest.

Blake: Really?

Howard: No one is tuning in. People want to see Trump. After watching the Trump/Clinton Super Bowl debate, I think there's going to be a real let down in terms of the level of interest in the vice presidential debate. It's not Sara Palin, it's not Joe Biden, it's not Paul Ryan. I just don't see it attracting a high level of interest. It's critically important because we've got two older presidential candidates and people should be watching but they're not going to, I just don't think they're going to. I just don't think that's where the interest is in this cycle.

Blake: Sorry, everybody. The debate is on the 4th, we have a call on the 5th to talk about the debate. Apologies for the confusion there on my point, the moderator is a little slow today. Mark, as we think about the time between presidential debates, we have this VP debate. You've suggested that it's going to help the Clinton/Kaine ticket a little bit. I want to analyze from the other side, what can Mike Pence do to help the Trump/Pence ticket in that debate?

Howard: I'll jump in.

Blake: Okay, Howard. I'll give that one to you.

Howard: Considering what he has to deal with, which is a lot and what he has to answer for, which is a lot, Mike Pence has I think performed very, very well in the interviews he's done, in the way he's conducted himself. He accepted the role but he's in a tough spot. He has to be who he is. He has to be a more traditional Republican but he also has to be loyal to this guy who is outside the establishment and who has chosen him for this position. I think he has done a very admirable job of walking a very, very difficult line. I think he's going to come off, again I don't think people really care, but I think he's going to continue to come off as credible. I think he's been very credible.

Mark: I think that's right. I do not agree with much of what the man thinks but I think that he is a very credible, very serious, very prepared public servant. I think he will help solidify the conservatives who have finally come around to Trump. At the edges of that, he'll do a good job.

Howard: If you're Trump, and this just to me epitomizes the weakness of Trump, if you're Trump yeah, he ultimately "picked" Mike Pence but the had to be pushed into it. Can you imagine if he picked Chris Christie while the bridge gate trial is going on. That's who he wanted to pick. His advisors had to browbeat him into making what turned out to be, at least up to now, the "right decision." He ought to get a clue and maybe listen to people a little bit more and stop listening to himself.

Blake: This is the get a clue call for everybody listening.

Mark: He's 70 years old. What you see is what you get. Let Trump be Trump, that's my mantra.

Howard: I'm sure it is.

Blake: Of course it is, Mark. That's not surprising to anyone who has been listening to these calls for months now. As we do come to the end, I want to talk about the spin. I know this is a little insider but inside the bubble, Howard as you talked about but we are shaped by the attitudes of others in the context of politics. The spin is pretty heavy today and it'll be heavy for the next couple of days coming out of the campaigns, from the pundits, both of you appear on television and talk about this regularly. Mark, what do you make of the effect of the spine today? What is it that these campaigns need to achieve to survive the 4 to 48-hour news cycle.

Mark: I think the Clinton campaign needs simply to brag about her performance because I think it was absolutely what she needed to do and I wouldn't go after Trump or his performance if I were the Clinton campaign. I'd spend the day bragging about her. I think that Trump has already started doing exactly what he shouldn't do which is trying to clean up the mess he made last night. He was on Fox of course this morning talking about this Miss Universe contestant and in trying to clean up the mess, I don't know how many of our listeners may have heard it, he attacked her and he said that she was the worst winner in the history of the pageant and that as soon she won she gained a lot of weight and got fat. That isn't going to help. I think Trump should maybe take a page from the Clinton playbook and take a day off and just let this cycle through and then get back to the road.

Blake: Howard, what do you think about the spin?

Howard: I think it has to be much more nuanced for her than she won and bask in the glory of winning. I think she's got to use to appeal to the constituencies she's got to draw out, particularly women to win the election. I think they've got to put this in the broader context of how we got to where we are today as I keep saying. Get this, on the other side very talented and accomplished people and very accomplished debaters that he dispensed with and she took care of him. I think she's got to put it in the broader context of strength and she's got to convey to people, she's got to pivot off of it to the trust issue. Obviously, she's not going to on her own initiative bring up the misgivings about her from a trust perspective. They have to use her performance to craft and kind of pivot off of it to a nuanced narrative that speaks to the thinks that people need to be spoken about in order to get off their couches and pull the lever for her.

Blake: That's good. We can all spend all day on Twitter and then we'll figure it all out. My last thought and we've got a call on October 5 and we'll talk about the next presidential debate but one thing that as these candidates look ahead, the second presidential debate is a different format, it's a town hall format. It's moderated by Martha Raditz of ABC News and Anderson Cooper of CNN and it's going to involve a lot of uncommitted voters at Washington University in St. Louis. Mark, do you think if you're Trump that that format provides any advantage that over the course of the next ten days you try and exploit?

Mark: I frankly expected, looking at the debate schedule, that this was going to be the tougher debate for Secretary Clinton and that the town hall with those two hosts in particular would be very friendly for her. I think he's going to find himself less comfortable, if that's imaginable than he did with that forum. He has time and I don't know that he listens to Howard.

Howard: That I can assure you he doesn't.

Mark: It would be a good time in his campaign to get some good advice and to come at this thing a different way next time.

Blake: Howard, any thoughts about that format and what advantages it might provide?

Howard: It's a great question. I think the questions are going to be very tough for her, much more difficult questions to answer and I think that probably works against her. On the other hand, she's been doing this a long time as he pointed out. For him, he really has to perpetuate the narrative that the system is rigged. That she's the system. He tried to do it last night but he couldn't quite get there. That the system is rigged, that she's been part of the system. She owns that, the 30-year thing or not quite 30 years, whatever the banter was, he tried and he didn't get there. He's got to get back to that. I don't know whether the town hall, I think it works against her, I don't know whether it works for him or against him.

Blake: We'll come back to that after we watch the two vice presidential candidates debate and we'll preview the second debate but I just wanted to get your perspective. I think we've reached the end of our time today. Last night was a big moment in this presidential race. There will be many more big moments to come. Mark, Howard it's always fun to be with you, always fun to talk about this race. To everybody listening on the call, thank you for joining us and we look forward to having you back on our next call on October 5. Thanks everybody.

Howard: Thanks, Blake.

Mark: Thanks, Blake.


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