Hillary Clinton looked to compound Donald Trump's season of bad news, sharply criticising him for losing nearly a billion dollars and pocketing tax savings while ordinary Americans pay their fair share.

"What kind of genius loses a billion dollars in a single year?" Clinton asked a crowd in downtown Toledo, Ohio, with a hint of amusement in her voice.

The speech came on Clinton's first trip to the state since September 6, and it marked the first time that she has commented on a New York Times report showing that Trump filed tax returns in 1995 reporting a massive US$916 million loss, which would have allowed him to avoid paying taxes for 18 years.

Here in the economic rust belt, support for Trump has been difficult for Clinton to dislodge. But with the new revelations, the campaign sees an opportunity to refocus on the economy.

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Most of her speech here hinged on making the case that Trump is more robber baron than populist prince.

The new revelations about his taxes only bolsters Clinton's argument against Trump that he has hidden his returns from the public to avoid revealing that he is not as wealthy or successful as he has claimed, or that he has not paid federal income taxes.

"After he made all those bad bets and lost all that money, he didn't lift a finger to protect his employees, or the small businesses and contractors he'd hired, or the people of Atlantic City," Clinton said.

"They all got hammered, while he was busy with his accountants figuring out how he could keep living like a billionaire."

Clinton was leading in RealClearPolitics.com's national poll average by 3.1 per cent yesterday. She is leading by five points or more in the swing states of Michigan, Virginia and New Hampshire and also has leads in Florida, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Maine, North Carolina, Colorado and Nevada.

Trump is ahead in Ohio, Arizona and Iowa.

The campaign released a new television ad using footage from the first presidential debate at Hofstra University last week, in which Trump responded to accusations that he avoided paying taxes by saying it made him "smart".

The narrator says: "You work hard, you pay your taxes, but why didn't Donald Trump pay his. If he thinks that makes him smart, what does he think of you?"

Clinton focused on the economy, an acknowledgment that her biggest challenge with white working-class voters in this part of the country is in reassuring them about her ability to handle the economy and undermining Trump's candidacy. Clinton reiterated her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. And she resurrected her support for the auto-industry bailout, an issue that still resonates in places like Ohio, where auto manufacturing remains a critical industry.

For Clinton's supporters, the news of Trump's taxes validates their hunches about him, but it's less clear whether it will move some of Trump's supporters elsewhere in the state.

"It's obvious that he's that kind of guy," said Jeff Zenz, 64, who wore a Bernie Sanders shirt. "I don't know why people need more evidence."

Max Cummins, 18, said Clinton seemed more energised than media coverage had indicated. "It was clear that Trump was probably evading taxes. But people question the credibility of what politicians are saying. When she said so, they didn't want to believe it. Now it's confirmed, and maybe that makes a difference."

Trump addressed the intense national scrutiny of his taxes, saying at a rally in Pueblo, Colorado, that he "brilliantly used" tax laws to his advantage.

Trump defended his practices, saying that he dug deep during a difficult time in the real estate industry to try to succeed in his business.

Members of the audience cheer as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally at Goodyear Hall and Theater in Akron. Photo / AP
Members of the audience cheer as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally at Goodyear Hall and Theater in Akron. Photo / AP

He also sought to favourably contrast the way he made his money with the way Clinton has earned a living in her career, and pitched himself as an underdog who has overcome obstacles. "While I made my money as a very successful private business person following the law all the way, Hillary Clinton made her money as a corrupt public official."

He added: "My understanding of the tax code gave me a tremendous advantage over those who didn't have a clue about it."

Looking back, Trump said: "These tough times were when I performed my very best".

He acknowledged that he has benefited from the laws, but added, "I'm working for you now, I'm not working for Trump".

Talking up their bosses

Today's debate is between the No. 2's - but will be all about the No. 1's.

Republican Indiana Governor Mike Pence and Democrat Senator Tim Kaine will share the biggest and most hazardous stage of their careers when they face off in Farmville, Virginia, for a vice-presidential debate.

Pence and Kaine are poised to duel over the temperament, qualifications, honesty and records of Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, as the two affable and smooth-talking men explain and proselytise their running mates. The debate begins at 2pm NZT at Longwood University.

Pence has a particular challenge: Trump's incendiary statements and erratic behaviour have formed a hurricane at the centre of the Republican campaign. "Mike Pence needs to go in there and try to change the trajectory of the race, but he can't do that because the biggest problem with their campaign right now is the presidential candidate," said Mo Elleithee, an ex-Kaine adviser.

Voters tune into Veep debates to see whether the candidates appear ready for the presidency should the need arise. But Pence and Kaine seem to have met the threshold already.