The immediate polls following the debate show that Hillary Clinton won, proving, perhaps as the Democratic candidate herself said, "words matter", writes former CNN journalist Gina London.

"No fancy lights, no music. Tonight it’s just us. Let’s get to it."

And with that, moderator Lester Holt introduced the most anticipated presidential debate in history. He urged the Hoftra University audience not to audibly react. Not to clap. Not to boo.

But immediately as Republican Donald Trump, wearing a dark suit with a bright blue tie and Democrat Hillary Clinton in a solid red pants suit, emerged on stage, the crowd erupted with loud applause, whistles and cheers.

Eighteen months after the campaign began, with the polls showing the election in a dead heat, the first female major party candidate squared off with the real estate mogul and reality TV star who has never held political office.

As they shook hands, I could hear Mrs Clinton pointedly greet Mr Trump by his first name which she consistently used throughout the debate.

Key points from Clinton v Trump

The first time Mr Trump referred to his opponent, however, he called her "Secretary Clinton" asking if she was okay with that moniker. "I want you to be happy," he ad-libbed, "It's very important to me."

This start-up framed the debate.  Mr Trump jabbed in his clipped, impromptu style of banter while Mrs Clinton thrust with more carefully and deliberately chosen words.

After years of pulling soundbites during my time at CNN I found it extremely difficult to pull solid, clear lines from Mr Trump. He spoke in that familiar stream of consciousness, half-sentence style that carried him to the top of the Primaries.  But is it enough now?

Mrs Clinton, on the other hand, was very practiced. She spoke slowly and deliberately.

She clearly tried to insert new terms into the campaign such as, "Trumped up, trickle down" economics when she described the Republican's planned tax cuts for the rich. Or the "Trump loophole" when she referred to how Mr Trump has allegedly avoided paying federal tax.

Mr Trump took her bait almost every time.  When she mentioned the loophole, for instance, Mr Trump interrupted her and sounded flustered as he said, "Who gave it that name? First I’ve heard of it."

Over the course of the 90 minutes, the candidates clashed over jobs, security, taxes, emails and somewhat surprisingly, even "birtherism".

On jobs, Mr Trump maintained that he would change trade deals to prevent factories from leaving the US.

Mrs Clinton hit Mr Trump's personal record squarely pointing out that he had not paid some of his own contract workers like an architect whom her campaign had invited into the debate's audience. 

"Maybe he didn't do a good job or I wasn't satisfied,” was Mr Trump’s rather glib response.

On security, Mrs Clinton slammed Mr Trump for his declared support of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and that she was surprised he had called on Russia to "hack into America."

Mr Trump pointed out that no one knows whether Russia was responsible for the recent hack into the Democratic party, that it could have "been someone sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds."

On taxes, Mr Trump was questioned directly by the moderator about how to justify not releasing his tax returns as previous candidates had for decades.

Mr Trump repeated that he was under a "routine audit" and when it is over he would release them. 

Mr Holt pointed out that the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) allows taxes to be released during an audit, so Mr Trump retorted that he would release his tax returns "when she releases her 33,000 emails that have been deleted."

A few shouts and cheers rang out from the audience that Mr Holt admonished.

The question of temperament brought another round of reaction from the audience.  Mr Trump declared he had the temperament of a winner and that his temperament was his "strongest asset. Probably by far."

Mrs Clinton, who in the televised split screen, was seen smiling throughout Mr Trump's description of himself, paused when it was her turn to reply, shook her shoulders and said, "Woo! Okay!"  A loud peal of laughter rang out from those seated.

Perhaps the strangest part of the debate was Mr Trump's rambling determination to distance himself from  the "birther" movement that claimed President Obama was not born in the US. 

With Mr Holt pointing out that the GOP candidate had continued to promote the conspiracy for years after the birth certificate was produced (until last week's press conference when Mr Trump finally said Mr Obama was born in the US), Mr Trump tried again to drag Mrs Clinton's campaign and even CNN into the issue. 

Finally, he pivoted and said he is satisfied now and just "wants to get on defeating ISIS."

Mr Trump's strongest moments were when he stayed high-level on issues of trade and when he questioned what real outcomes had been produced during Clinton's nearly 30-year political career. 

He also repeated his "Make America Great Again" mantra several times.

About two-thirds into the evening, he seemed to chide Mrs Clinton for staying home and studying.

Mrs Clinton remarked that yes, unlike her opponent, she had prepared for the debate adding, "I am also prepared for being president of the United States".

And the audience applauded again.