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Throwing Donald Trump's words back at him, Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday night cast the presidential election as a choice between a strongman, who claims only he can save a dying America, and the first woman presidential nominee in her country's history, who seeks to realize its never-ending potential.

Whether voters fear for America's future more than they believe in it will determine whether Mr. Trump or Ms. Clinton prevails on Nov. 8.

To a Republican presidential nominee who declared last week "nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it," Ms. Clinton retorted in her speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination: "Americans don't say 'I alone can fix it.' Americans say 'We can fix it together.'"

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IBBITSON: An angry Obama makes it clear: This election is about good vs. evil

To a businessman who would "Make America Great Again" by reversing decades of freer trade, Ms. Clinton suggested: "He should start by actually making things in America again," referring to Trump-branded products that are manufactured overseas.

And to a populist braggart who once claimed: "I know more about ISIS than the generals do," she replied, simply: "No, Donald. You don't."

Her speech was typical Clinton: chock full of policy specifics from gun reform to immigration reform to campaign-finance reform – reforms that have defied decades of efforts to find bipartisan consensus. Always she was poised and confident. Sometimes, she was dull. Always she offered far more specifics than Mr. Trump's vague and often preposterous pledges. Sometimes, she got bogged down in reciting grocery-lists of priorities.

FACT-CHECKING: Clinton's big speech and Trump's swipes from the sidelines

Ms. Clinton was not, however, prepared to go where President Barack Obama and others went Wednesday night: warning that Mr. Trump posed an existential threat to the republic itself. She left that to her allies, and to Mr. Trump himself, by his words and deeds.

In his own acceptance speech, in Cleveland a week ago, Mr. Trump painted a dystopian portrait of a collapsing America that only he could rescue.

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"I am your voice," he promised, if promise is the right word. "History is watching us now. I am your voice."

That's the sort of rhetoric that prompted Mr. Obama and other Democrats to characterize Mr. Trump as a demagogue, an authoritarian threat to the republic. And they have a case.

Almost everything in Mr. Trump's election platform, to the extent he has one, violates the law or goes beyond the legitimate powers of a president: deporting millions of illegal immigrants; refusing visas to Muslim immigrants; abrogating the NATO treaty; torturing accused terrorists and killing their families; abrogating NAFTA and imposing tariffs on Chinese imports; imposing penalties on companies that transfer operations outside the United States.

He admires how Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Chinese Communists, Saddam Hussein and the Kims of North Korea handled dissent. He admires them.

And there is the intangible but unmistakable sense when watching and listening to him that Mr. Trump seeks to create and lead a cult of personality centred on himself. Centred on him in the White House.

But Ms. Clinton, too, has contributed to this malaise. The Clinton family's obsession with control is so total that no credible candidate was willing to run against her; popular revulsion over that obsession powered the insurgent candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders, a once-obscure democratic socialist who gathered astonishing support.

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The Clinton penchant for secrecy – over e-mail, over donations, over everything, really – and dissembling – does anyone really believe she opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, much less NAFTA? – leaves a bitter taste. Her unfavourable rating is almost as high as Mr. Trump's, and some recent polls have the Republicans pulling ahead of the Democrats in the presidential race.

But to counterbalance those flaws, there are her merits: her decades of experience as first lady, senator, secretary of state; her formidable intelligence; her hands-on knowledge of the most complex files.

There was the secure, confident, reassuring – and above all, presidential – performance she delivered Thursday night.

Most importantly, Ms. Clinton offered herself as a typical politician, a "small-d democrat" as Jonathan Chait wrote in New York magazine – confronting what many feel is an authoritarian figure who would threaten democracy itself.

That, at least, is how the Democrats have framed this presidential election campaign. They are able to do that only because Mr. Trump has offered so much evidence that they are right.

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