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Donald Trump and Joe Biden are scheduled to spar in the first of three presidential debates on Tuesday in Cleveland. The debate will be moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace and cover a broad range of topics, including the coronavirus pandemic, race and violence in cities, election integrity and the economy.
The face-to-face meeting comes at a time when Biden holds a consistent lead in both national and swing-state polls. Barring any unexpected changes in the state of the pandemic or the economy, the debates likely represent President Trump’s best chance to shift the race, election experts say.
The candidates have chosen characteristically distinct methods to prepare for the first debate. Biden has been drilling on the issues and ways to critique Trump’s leadership for weeks. Biden told reporters that he will do several days of intense practice before the event. Trump, for his part, has reportedly eschewed traditional prep altogether, as he did ahead of his debates against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Why there’s debate
The debate offers Trump a chance to close the gap less 40 days before the election, some pundits say. One of Trump’s main lines of attack against Biden throughout the campaign has been questions about his mental fitness. The groundwork laid out over the past several months could pay off if Biden stumbles over his speech or gives a meandering answer that plays into voters’ fears about his psychological state. Though most analysts believed Clinton won all three debates in 2016, Trump landed some signature moments that became some of the most enduring exchanges of the race. The upcoming debates provide the same opportunity, Trump advisers say.
Trump’s confrontational debate style could also present challenges to Biden, who said he wants to avoid getting “baited into a brawl” and losing focus on the issues. The president’s tendency to rely on inaccurate spin, and at times outright lies, could also push Biden into a disadvantageous position of trying to fact-check Trump’s statements, rather than getting his own message across.
Others say Trump has made a major tactical error by lowering expectations for Biden. Even a mediocre performance would be enough to clear the incredibly low bar Trump has set for him, they argue. Trump also runs the risk of combusting in an unfavorable debate setting, where his preferred press conference tactics of calling on sympathetic reporters or simply walking away aren’t available to him, critics say.
The state of the race also plays into Biden’s hands. All he needs to do is avoid a complete collapse to hold onto his sizable lead, election experts say. Trump, on the other hand, needs a decisive win to gain ground, which might set him up to take ill-advised risks that could hurt more than help, some argue.
After Tuesday, the next scheduled event is the vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris on Oct. 7. Trump and Biden are slated to debate two more times in October. Election Day is Nov. 3.
Biden has a chance to easily dispel Trump’s main line of attack
“After weeks of ham-handed attempts at convincing the electorate that Joe Biden is a doddering fool, Trump has put himself in an impossible situation. He has committed the amateurish political mistake of lowering the bar on his opponent's performance to floor level.” — Juliana Silva and Bill McGowan, CNN
As the lesser-known candidate, the debate presents opportunity but also risk for Biden
“COVID-19 has denied us the months of appearances and news conferences that reveal the candidates’ personalities, values and abilities. For good or ill, voters know Mr. Trump; they don’t possess anywhere near the same information about Mr. Biden. That leaves him with more to gain and more to lose in Cleveland.” — Former senior presidential adviser Karl Rove, Wall Street Journal
The debates likely won’t make much of a difference in the race
“Most attentive voters are partisans, and have already decided to support their party’s candidate. The smaller number of attentive voters who have decided to defect have generally done so by now. And the even smaller group who really have no party preference? They, too, may well have decided by this point. Most of the undecided voters by now are those who don’t typically pay much attention to politics, and hardly any of them will watch the debates.” — Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg
Trump has shown he’s not ready to face tough questions
“Trump will continue to face adversarial questions and fact checks from moderators and perhaps from Biden in the debates. ...Trump doesn’t seem prepared for it.” — Amber Phillips, Washington Post
The Supreme Court vacancy gives Trump a chance to debate an issue he’s comfortable with
“There’s 90 minutes to debate and they have a whole host of issues to cover but all of a sudden the Supreme Court fight is going to be front and center. …[It’s] going to mean that Donald Trump’s talking about an issue that’s on home turf, if you will, as opposed to spending more time on areas where he has less of a compelling effort to run on.” — Republican strategist Colin Reed to Fox News
A major gaffe could be a huge blow to Biden’s campaign
“Almost every Democratic operative I’ve spoken with in the past few weeks remains petrified that Biden is going to bungle the debates in a way that costs him the election — perhaps by looking old or confused, confirming the worst paranoia and conspiracy theories about him being unfit for the job. They see the debates as Biden’s best chance to blow an election that, based on the current polls, seems like his to lose.” — Edward-Isaac Dover, Atlantic
Biden faces the daunting challenge of keeping up with Trump’s falsehoods
“Fact-checking Trump live is a challenge for anyone, even when you’re not on stage in a make-or-break debate for the presidency. There is a palpable fear among some Democrats about whether Biden is up for the challenge and whether being too aggressive could backfire.” — Amie Parnes, The Hill
The lack of an audience could throw Trump off of his game
“Mr. Biden will have another advantage during the debate: President Trump will not have a live audience to excite him and satisfy his insatiable need for approval and attention, which means he will be even more vulnerable to a takedown.” — Richard A. Friedman, New York Times
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