Presidential candidates to face off for first time in Cleveland and for Biden no news would be good news

After months of anticipation, Donald Trump and election rival Joe Biden were scheduled to meet on a debate stage for the first time in Cleveland on Tuesday night, in what could be Trump’s last best chance to turn the presidential race his way and win re-election.

Suffering from weeks of negative revelations in the news and terrible poll numbers, Trump needs a big score at the first presidential debate to shift the national conversation away from the sputtering economy, the coronavirus pandemic and his staggering tax avoidance, analysts say.

“Trump will go after Biden hard, to deflect attention away from his own troubles, including the reports on his tax evasion and business failures,” said Brad Bannon, a Washington-based Democratic strategist. “Much of Biden’s support is based on his calm demeanor, which contrasts well with the president’s erratic personality.

“So, it’s important for Biden to respond to Trump without losing his cool, and smile while he surgically cuts the president down to size.”

Advisers to Biden, meanwhile, say that a great debate result for the Democratic candidate would be for not much to happen at all. The challenge as they see it is for Biden to appear steady and draw a contrast with Trump – and to resist being drawn into a mudfight.

Biden himself appears to recognize the dangers of meeting Trump on his preferred turf of insult and mockery.

“I hope I don’t get baited into a brawl with this guy, because that’s the only place he’s comfortable,” Biden told donors at a fundraiser in Delaware earlier this month. “This is a guy who is absolutely tasteless. Completely tasteless. So pointing it out doesn’t do much.”

The presidential election on 3 November is only 35 days away, and early in-person voting is under way already, while about 10m mail-in ballots have been sent out across the country – a record brought about by the coronavirus crisis.

The conventional wisdom about presidential debates is that they do not move the race much – except when they do. Former vice-president Al Gore was dinged for sighing through his first debate in 2000 with George W Bush. An underprepared outing by Barack Obama against Mitt Romney in their first debate of 2012 breathed new life into the challenger’s campaign.

But the stakes around the first debate of the 2020 cycle may be unique. The race has proven historically stable throughout the year, according to polling analysts, and big campaign moments including the national conventions and Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as a running mate do not appear to have moved the needle.

For weeks, the Trump campaign has been touting the debate as the moment that would at last alter the race, regaling donors with a fantasy of a quick-witted Trump running circles around a somnolent Biden.

Trump went so far at the weekend as to demand a “drug test” before the debate of Biden, whom Trump has baselessly accused of taking “performance enhancing drugs”.

“Vice-President Biden intends to deliver his debate answers in words,” a Biden spokeswoman told Politico. “If the president thinks his best case is made in urine, he can have at it.”

Biden and Trump are scheduled to participate in three debates total. The 90-minute opener in the series will be held at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and be moderated by the Fox News host Chris Wallace, who has proven in the past to be a tough interviewer of the president.

On Monday, Wallace said he hoped to be “as invisible as possible” onstage. “If I’ve done my job right, at the end of the night, people will say, ‘That was a great debate, who was the moderator?’” Wallace told Fox.

Wallace has picked six subjects for the night: the candidates’ records in office; the supreme court; Covid-19; the economy; “race and violence in our cities”; and the integrity of the election.

But a bombshell New York Times report at the weekend showing that Trump paid zero federal taxes in 10 of the last 15 years, and that Trump has hundreds of millions in mysterious debt coming due, could be one of many topics that upend the planned proceedings.

Biden is expected to highlight how much of Trump’s wealth was inherited, and to draw a contrast between Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Biden grew up, and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the site of Trump’s most famous golden tower.

Biden might also underscore the dangers of a president who denies climate change by pointing to the ongoing wildfire crisis in the west. Facing new sexual assault allegations himself, Trump could seek to revive allegations against Biden.

Trump has already signaled that Biden’s family is fair game, with sustained attacks on his son Hunter Biden, whose relationships in Ukraine Republicans tried to use to muddle the impeachment inquiry.

But Trump appears to need more political mileage out of the debate than the brief bump that a few sharply delivered attacks might deliver.

More than winning an argument, strategists say, the debates are about making an impression on viewers that could nudge a crucial few into one camp or the other.

“Trump needs a Biden collapse,” the Republican political consultant Mike Murphy, a frequent Trump critic, said on his podcast. “Because Trump needs something to happen on the 29th that gives him the whole month to work with.”


News – Debate offers Trump chance to yank stubbornly stable 2020 race his way