WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and his campaign have spent nearly a year lowering the bar for Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s debate performance – and in recent weeks trying to reverse that narrative.
In the days leading up to the first debate on Tuesday – one of Trump’s last chances to shift the momentum of the race in his favor – aides and advisers have been publicly and privately trying to set the stage for a debate between a president who has done relatively little to prepare. and a skilled debator with decades of experience.
Last week, Murtaugh had a different assessment of Biden’s communication skills. “Biden has spent decades cleverly arguing in the Senate, won two debates while running for vice president, and just passed 11 debates in the Democratic primary where he defeated two dozen challengers,” he said. “Joe Biden is a debate expert who knows what he’s doing.”
It’s far from the image Trumpworld had repeatedly painted of Biden, who the president said belongs to a nursing home, can’t speak without a teleprompter, and would fail a cognitive test used to diagnose dementia. But despite recent attempts to reframe Biden as a champion of debate, Trump and his campaign have set the exceptionally low bar for him in the minds of many voters, veterans of presidential debate preparation said.
“The only way Trump triumphs is if it’s a disaster for Biden, and by that I mean a moment, or moments, when the challenger appears incoherent or unhinged and, therefore, unable to hold office as president,” he said. Mark McKinnon, who helped prepare George W. Bush for his debates and Sarah Palin for his Vice Presidential debate against Biden in 2008.
Trump’s aides acknowledged over the summer that Biden’s attacks on wits ran the risk of setting a level too low for Biden at the time of the debate, but the president insisted when the strategy intertwined with another of his own. main messages: that Biden had become a tool of the far left wing of the Democratic Party due to a deterioration in his mental state.
Some Trump surrogates tried to raise expectations for Biden’s debate performance, but their message was confused and contradicted by the president, who went on to argue without evidence that Biden is unable to speak without the help of the his caregivers and is taking performance-enhancing drugs.
“I have no idea what it’s going to be like. It’s always different when it comes out, because it’s on a different drug, I guess. But it’s always very different when it comes out,” Trump told reporters Saturday.
Little over the past year has done much to alter the dynamics of the race, but debates have traditionally been seen as moments that can change the momentum. Even if Trump were only able to gain ground on the fringes, that could be enough in several key battlefield states where he is within walking distance of Biden, such as Florida and North Carolina.
The first debate is typically the most watched: 84 million spectators tuned in to the first general election confrontation in 2016.
Trump has largely avoided traditional debate preparation with a mock opponent and moderator, opting instead for less formal conversations about Biden’s background on issues like crime and broad strategy with political advisers, such as the National Security Advisor. Robert O’Brien and economic adviser Larry Kudlow. He also had regular discussions with campaign manager Bill Stepien and communications adviser Jason Miller, one of the few people left in Trump’s orbit since his 2016 run.
Trump said he sees his daily work as preparation for debate, such as answering reporters’ questions and doing media interviews. But a press conference where Trump commands the stage is very different from sharing the stage with an opponent and moderator running the show, debate veterans said. Both Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012 fought in their first debates.
“After being president for a while, you’re not used to being questioned and you think you know everything,” said McKinnon, who said that was the case with Bush’s first meeting with 2004 opponent John Kerry.
While Obama and Bush managed to recover from their first flops in the debate, the voting dynamic this year is different, with more than 70 million ballots already sent to voters in 39 states. When Trump and Biden face off again, the first in-person voting will have begun in California, Georgia, Iowa and Maine.
Trump’s allies have tried to turn his lack of formal debate preparedness to their advantage, hoping to lower expectations and suggesting that he may underperform not because he’s less qualified but because he didn’t spend enough time preparing.
Trump said his attorney Rudy Giuliani and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were at the White House to help prepare for the debate, both in the role of Biden.
Pressed on how much time he was spending on preparing the debate, Trump said, “A little time, not a lot.”
“I run a country, you know. I don’t have the luxury,” the president told reporters Sunday shortly after returning from a trip to his golf course in Virginia.
One of the best things Trump could do, said Philippe Reines, a senior Clinton adviser since 2016 who played Trump in mock debates with Clinton, is to be more of the debater he was that year – someone who spent little time in defend yourself and a simple and clear line of attack and a targeted message about work and immigration.
But as Biden’s relatively steady poll leader attests, Trump has struggled to develop an effective line of attack this time around, and tends to get bogged down more in his own grievances and defending himself than in 2016, Reines said.
If he was advising Trump this time, Reines said, he would have advised him like this: “I won’t tell you to apologize. I won’t tell you you have to give an inch to anything. I’ll tell you to be consistent. Last time you won for the pillars that you have drawn and you are so obsessed with declaring victory that you do not leave any space. “