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Trump Biden to Debate Amid Crises      09/29 06:10

   In an election year like no other, the first debate between President Donald 
Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, could be a pivotal moment in a 
race that has remained stubbornly unchanged in the face of historic tumult.

   CLEVELAND (AP) -- In an election year like no other, the first debate 
between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, could 
be a pivotal moment in a race that has remained stubbornly unchanged in the 
face of historic tumult.

   The Tuesday night debate will offer a massive platform for Trump and Biden 
to outline their starkly different visions for a country facing multiple 
crises, including racial justice protests and a pandemic that has killed more 
than 200,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs.

   The health emergency has upended the usual trappings of a presidential 
campaign, lending heightened importance to the debate. But amid intense 
political polarization, comparatively few undecided voters remain, raising 
questions as to how, or if, the debate might shape a race that has been defined 
by its bitterness and, at least so far, its stability.

   Biden will step onto the Cleveland stage holding leads in the polls --- 
significant in the national surveys, closer in the battleground states --- but 
facing questions about his turn in the spotlight, particularly considering 
Trump's withering attacks. And Trump, with only 35 days to change the course of 
the race, will have arguably his best chance to try to reframe the campaign as 
a choice election and not a referendum over his handling of a virus that has 
killed more people in America than any other nation.

   "This will be the first moment in four years that someone will walk on stage 
as co-equal to Trump and be able to hold him to account for the malfeasance he 
has shown leading the country," said Steve Schmidt, senior campaign aide for 
John McCain's 2008 Republican presidential bid and a frequent Trump critic. "If 
Biden is unable to indict Trump for all that he has done, (that) would be 
profound failure. There is no spinning that away."

   The president's handling of the coronavirus will likely dominate much of the 
discussion. The pandemic's force will be tangible as the candidates' podiums 
will be spaced far apart and the traditional opening handshake scrapped.

   And the debate could be shaped by an extraordinary confluence of other 
recent moments: the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 
allowing Trump to nominate a conservative jurist to replace a liberal voice and 
reshape the high court for generations, and the blockbuster revelations about 
Trump's long-hidden tax history, including that he paid only $750 a year in 
federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and nothing in many other years.

   But the impact of the debate --- or the two that follow in the weeks ahead 
--- remains unclear.

   The tumult of 2020 is difficult to overstate: COVID-19 has rewritten the 
rules of everyday life; schools and businesses are shuttered; and racial 
justice protests have swept the nation after a series of high-profile killings 
of Black people by police.

   Despite the upheaval, the presidential race has remained largely unchanged 
since Biden seized control of the Democratic field in March. The nation has 
soured on Trump's handling of the pandemic, and while his base of support has 
remained largely unchanged, he has seen defections among older and female 
voters, particularly in the suburbs, and his path to 270 Electoral College 
votes, while still viable, has shrunk.

   Polls suggest fewer undecided voters remain than at this point in the 2016 
campaign. And several high-profile debates in past elections that were thought 
to be game-changing moments at the time ultimately had little lasting effect.

   Four years ago, Democrat Hillary Clinton was widely seen as besting Trump in 
their three debates, but she lost in November. In 2012, Mitt Romney crushed 
Barack Obama in their first meeting only to falter in the rematches.

   But some debates have mattered: most famously, a turning point in the 1960 
race was when John F. Kennedy was perceived --- at least by TV viewers --- as 
outdueling Richard Nixon. And in 1980, Ronald Reagan was able to reassure 
nervous voters that he possessed a presidential temperament when he delivered a 
winning performance against incumbent Jimmy Carter.

   While both sides anticipate a vicious debate between two men who do not like 
each other, the Biden campaign has downplayed the night's importance, believing 
that the pandemic and the battered economy will outweigh any debate stage gaffe 
or zinger. Conversely, the Trump campaign has played up the magnitude of the 
duel, believing it will be a moment for the president to damage Biden and 
recast the race.

   Trump had told advisers that he is preparing an all-out assault on Biden, 
claiming that the former senator's 47 years in Washington have left him out of 
touch and that his family, namely his son Hunter, has benefited from 
corruption. The president on Monday also repeated his demand that Biden take 
some sort of drug test, asserting without evidence that the Democratic nominee 
was somehow using a performance enhancer.

   That continued a curious round of expectations setting: While Trump's 
campaign has of late praised Biden's debate skills, the president has also 
vividly portrayed his opponent as not being up to the job, potentially allowing 
Biden to come off well as long as he avoids a major stumble.

   "This guy doesn't have a clue. He doesn't know where the hell he is," Trump 
said recently, likening the debate to a boxing match and pointing to his head. 
"To win matches you need that up here. This wins, probably, it's 50% of it. 
This is not prime time for Joe."

   But Trump --- never a polished debater, though a commanding presence on 
stage --- has done little in the way of formal preparations, which may mean he 
is walking into his own trap.

   "Historically, incumbents do less well in the first debate, largely because 
they're unaccustomed to being challenged openly," said presidential historian 
Jon Meacham. "The most important single debate in terms of direct impact on 
outcome came 40 years ago, with the single Carter-Reagan meeting a week before 
the election. The key question then --- 'Are you better off than you were four 
years ago?' --- has fresh and compelling resonance."

   Biden's performances during the primary debates were uneven, and some 
Democrats have been nervous as to how he will fare in an unscripted setting. 
But his team views the night as a moment to illuminate Trump's failings with 
the pandemic and economy, with the former vice president acting as a "fact 
checker on the floor" while bracing himself for the onslaught that is coming.

   "They're going to be mostly personal," Biden said. "That's the only thing he 
knows how to do. He doesn't know how to debate the facts because he's not that 
smart. He doesn't know that many facts."

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