Hillary Clinton portrayed herself Thursday as a steely stateswoman ready to fend off the dangers facing the United States, as she denounced Republican rival Donald Trump as "unpatriotic" and unfit to lead.
With just 61 days before America chooses a new commander in chief, the Democrat went on the offensive highlighting the risk of electing a political novice who praises Russia's leader while dismissing the US president, and who has no real plan to combat IS jihadists.
Trump pushed back just as hard, accusing Clinton of being a failed and "trigger-happy" secretary of state whose policies triggered mayhem across the world.
Clinton, 68, and Trump, 70, have clashed repeatedly over foreign policy, but their battle rose to a new level Wednesday night when the two were separately grilled over their national security credentials at a New York forum. "One thing you didn't hear from Donald Trump last night is any plan to take on ISIS, one of the biggest threats facing our country," Clinton said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
"He says his plan is still a secret, but the truth is he simply doesn't have one. And that's not only dangerous, it should be disqualifying."
Instead of laying out a Middle East strategy at the forum, she said, Trump praised Putin and suggested the strongman is "far more" of a leader than US President Barack Obama.
"Even I was shocked by this," Clinton said later at a rally in Charlotte, in the battleground state of North Carolina.
"That is not just unpatriotic, it's not just insulting to the office and to the man who holds the office. It is scary, it is dangerous."
Clinton invoked one of the nation's most popular Republican presidents in driving home her point.
"What would Ronald Reagan say?" Clinton asked, "about a Republican nominee who attacks America's generals and heaps praise on Russia's president? I think we know the answer."
The seniormost elected US Republican, House Speaker Paul Ryan, distanced himself from Trump's praise of Putin just one day after returning to Congress after a seven-week break.
"Vladimir Putin is an aggressor that does not share our interests," Ryan said, citing US authorities who believe Moscow is conducting cyber-attacks on the US political system.
Seeking to strike a commanding tone, Clinton called for the United States to track down and kill Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as it did Osama bin Laden.
"Getting al-Baghdadi will require efforts at the top levels, but it will send a resounding message that nobody directs or inspires attacks against the United States and gets away with it," she said.
With the campaign now in the final two-month stretch, Clinton was wasting no opportunity to harangue Trump over his missteps, accusing him of having "trash-talked" US generals.
"We've never seen anything like this," she said, highlighting Trump's call to bring back interrogation techniques deemed to be torture, and to kill relatives of terrorists.
Clinton pointed to the US military code of honor, saying "that, Donald Trump,... is what we're going to stand up and defend in the face of your outrageous, disgraceful attacks on the men and women of our armed forces."
The bitter back-and-forth was likely to be on display for the campaign's duration. Trump joined the fray Thursday with attacks on Clinton, whom he accused of having "raced to invade, intervene and topple regimes."
"Hillary Clinton is trigger-happy," with policies that "produced ruin" in Libya, Iraq and Syria, Trump said in Cleveland, Ohio in a 10-minute anti-Hillary riff before delivering planned remarks on education.
"Her policies unleashed ISIS, spread terrorism and put Iran on a path to nuclear weapons."
Trump has gained on Clinton over the past 10 days, but the former secretary of state still maintains an advantage of 2.8 percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics poll average.
A new Quinnipiac Poll of battleground states shows Clinton ahead 48 percent to 43 percent in Pennsylvania and ahead 47-43 in North Carolina. But Trump leads in Ohio, 46-45, while the two are tied in Florida, 47-47, according to the poll.
A Suffolk University poll shows a different story in North Carolina, with Trump ahead by three points.
Clinton's tarmac address to reporters marked the first podium press conference in nine months for the candidate, who broke a long media drought by speaking to journalists at length on her campaign plane this week. She also rebuked an "undisciplined" Trump for discussing elements of a recent classified intelligence briefing during Wednesday's commander-in-chief forum, in which he said he learned that Obama and other US leaders "did not follow" the advice of US national security experts.
"I would never comment on any aspect of an intelligence briefing that I received," Clinton said.