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President Trump and Democrat Joe Biden face off on Tuesday night in the first of three presidential general election debates.
The debate is high and carries risks for both candidates.
Here are six questions before the debate, to moderate Fox News Sunday conductor Chris Wallace begins at 9 p.m. ET and held at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
1. Can Trump avoid the collapse of the incumbent’s first debate?
Presidents for re-election often struggle in their early debates. It happened to Barack Obama, both Bushes, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Some have recovered; some don’t.
“What happens with an incumbent president is that they spend four years in office with the postponement and the agreement,” said Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV. “It’s hard for staff to directly challenge an incumbent president, so when they get up on the debate stage, they’re not used to being spoken to loudly and directly and being criticized. They are also by definition out of practice.”
Trump, of course, defies the odds, breaks the rules, and appears to be constantly struggling, so maybe it won’t matter. An NBC report this month indicated that Trump did not appear to take debate preparation or hold sham sessions seriously. But another from the Washington Post Friday shows Trump is preparing personal and violent attacks on Biden.
The way Trump withstands a serious 90-minute debate after serving as president for nearly four years with a record to defend – and not being the stone-throwing outsider – is a real wild card.
2. Does Biden come across competently?
It’s no secret that Trump and his campaign tried to portray Biden as incompetent, over the hill and not all there. But there is a huge risk in this approach for Trump, because he and his allies have significantly lowered the bar for Biden.
“People who just want to get rid of Trump will be satisfied if Biden shows up, if he doesn’t collapse in the middle of the debate and whatever he says, even if it’s wrong or a gaffe – like 200 million. [who have died from the coronavirus] – they will reject him and people will simply give him a permit, “said Mary Frances Berry, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania.” It has to be what Obama called – it has to be clean and articulate, but it doesn’t even need to be articulate, just clean. “
It’s been over a year since the first Democratic primary debate, when people asked the same question. Let’s face it: Biden is 77 and would be 78 when he was sworn in as president. It is not the same debater and public speaker as it was ten years ago. But while he had some clear debates in the primary, he also had some good ones. And certainly, Biden competently stumbled upon his public appearances during the general election campaign, including, most notably, his speech at the Democratic National Convention and a recent CNN town hall.
3. Can Trump and Biden control their temperaments and tone?
There is a high likelihood that this will become a very aggressive debate with Biden trying to indict Trump’s record, and who knows what Trump will come up with.
They both have a tendency to sound angry, and sometimes a debate is more about tone than substance because it indicates control and sympathy. This may not matter with two candidates known as both, but losing your temper can play into negative narratives from both of you.
“Trump is Trump,” Schroeder said. “There’s never a big variation in the way she presents herself, whether it’s at press conferences, debates or a White House rally, so what it is is what it is. I don’t think it will modulate its performance in any way. for debate. “
Schroeder added, however, that it will be interesting to see if Trump and Biden can control their tempers and if one takes the large bait that the other offers.
4. How does Trump defend his record?
From the coronavirus pandemic and race relations to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement in the Supreme Court and Trump’s tax returns, these 90 minutes could fly by. Trump definitely has his back against the wall and needs to defend his record and expand his appeal to the center of the electorate.
So far, Trump continues to be bearish in the polls, averaging 43% nationwide. It received 46% in 2016 and lost the popular vote by 3 million votes. It’s possible with the way Electoral College votes are assigned that Trump will win again but lose the popular vote even more, but from Team Trump’s perspective, that’s not a great place to start.
Part of the reason he hasn’t been able to expand his appeal is because independent and suburban voters, both groups he last won, have disagreed with him on most issues since he’s took office. And they overwhelmingly disapprove of the work it is doing to manage the coronavirus pandemic. So how does Trump address the substance of those concerns voters have about his handling, other than calling him the “China Virus” and simply claiming he did a great job?
5. How does Biden respond to personal attacks?
Trump must make Biden an unacceptable choice rather than let this election continue to be a referendum on him. One way Trump will likely try to do this – and based on his own records – is to go find Biden’s son Hunter.
Who knows what’s up Trump’s sleeve? Remember, this is the same person who brought women into a debate who accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct and tried to put them in Hillary Clinton’s line of sight. How Biden responds will be important. The fact is this: Biden has problems on his side. His troubled positions on most things align much more with the electorate center than with Trump’s positions, so Biden could try to evade and stay focused on issues that matter to the country.
But Trump has a unique way of controlling events. Whether Biden can wrest some control could be the key.
6. How does the moderator control the stage?
Speaking of control, there is probably no one better suited to moderate this particular debate than Fox News Sundayis Chris Wallace. Wallace is incisive, a tough and prepared interrogator, as his interview with Trump in July demonstrates.
Debates can go very south when a moderator is not in control. How and to what extent will he control both candidates, Trump in particular, given that he can be so combative and is okay with running with things that aren’t true? How will Trump respond to Wallace’s push?
“Trump has to watch out for Wallace pouncing on him,” Berry said. “If that happens and Trump is out of balance, he could lose support with the people who are on the fence.”
And how does Biden respond if he’s pushed too? Biden’s ability to give and take will also go to the question of his competence, but Biden has spent half a century immersed in politics, unlike Trump.