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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Lemire reported from New York.

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Follow Lemire at http://twitter.com/JonLemire and Colvin at http://twitter.com/colvinj

(20) comments

NewMarketParent

I'll be reading the post-wrap as I can't stand to hear 45's word salad as he Gish Gallops during the debate. 45 insulted a disabled person during one of his rallies and for you guys, that wasn't a deal breaker. So, obviously you guys have no low that you won't drop to in order to brown-nose the Orange Julius.

Watching this debate is going to be like watching Biden play chess with a pigeon. Yeah, Biden will beat him, but the pigeon is just going to crap on the board and strut around like he won anyway. 45's followers will be in here tomorrow lining up to get shot in the face on Fifth Avenue.

DickD

Recent polls show Biden with 279 EC votes with 96 a toss up. If Trump wins ALL of the toss up EC votes he still loses. Only 14% of voters have not made up their minds.

public-redux

Another 60+ Benghazis yesterday on Trump’s watch.

public-redux

I sure am looking forward to the debate tonight.

pdl603

Is somebody going to check Joe’s ears to make sure there are no ear pieces? It may be the only way his puppet masters can prevent him from looking and acting as stupid as he actually is.

bosco

[lol][lol][lol][lol][thumbup][ninja]

olefool

Although I believe we already know which of these politicians is the stupid one, it ain't Biden... but what is puzzling is the fact that, despite all the verifiable evidence, Trump's followers, like you and your pal bosco, (if you're actually two different people. who knows) are prone to make the most inane statements as those today. It's no wonder that Putin has you all and Trump correctly identified as "useful idiots".. C'mon guys, think about this before you comment further....

Dwasserba

Not sure how anyone can overlook the "no taxes paid" and the $750 when retired people (no jobs) pay thousands. I paid more in taxes in starter jobs decades ago. His accountants are yes, "that smart" (cue cheering) but it really "sticks it" to the rest of us slobs doing our part....

bosco

Have you been in business and are familiar with tax laws that affect business taxes and business expense deductions, as well as separating business and personal income?

[ninja]

pdl603

Olefool, it is hard to believe you think Joe isn’t stupid. Name one thing that Joe can point to that shows his brilliance. Harris-Bidenz ticket, which one is Dumb and which one is Dumber? Harris believes Tupac is alive and that Notorious B.I.G. (Biggy Smalls) was female. Harris was reading from a teleprompter no less. And Joe....enough said. He hasn’t had an original thought, EVER. He keeps borrowing from everybody.

C.D.Reid

pdl, remember, you're addressing someone who calls himself an "ole fool."

awteam2000

“Stupid is what stupid does” - Forest Gump.

Trump has surely lived up to that quote with his handling of the Coronavirus. Over 205,000 dead.

gabrielshorn2013

No aw, unless they were in the original infections where the agent was not understood, over 205K died because people apparently are incapable of following four simple rules. 1) avoid crowds 2) keep at least 6 feet apart 3) wash hour hands frequently and 4) wear a mask. If these simple rules were followed, transmission of SARS-Co-V-2 would be curtailed, and R would be below 1. There are no mulligans with CoViD-19. Get careless, get infected, infect others. I am assuming that you have not been infected yet because you are following the rules, right? Europe is now developing the "second wave" of infections. Why is that?

awteam2000

You mean like his “cult”, herded together at his rallies not wearing mask 😷? Do you mean when Trump claimed it was a hoax, 15 cases soon to be none. Do you mean knowing how serious the pandemic was to our country back in February, taped, sharing with Bob Woodward how serious the virus was but lying to you and the country? Do you mean not leveling with the public which he’s sworn to serve? Do you mean ignoring his health agencies and bringing on an advisor who advocates for herding as a remedy? ( of course you know the herd theory as a remedy won’t work if you can be infected again, not to mention the catastrophic loss of life.) Or do you mean the advice he ignores by his own health agencies to limit and reduce spread - like social distancing, testing, tracing and maybe setting and example.

No Trump is a disaster.

He had a chance to be leader but blew it.

Oh that’s right. He closed flights from China on February 28th.

Gabe, you are very naïve. You aren’t willing to recognize Trump has his foot on the FDA, HHS and CDC. Seven months into this discourse, still defending Trump. I feel it would be unfair of me, going forward, to respond to your comments in defense of Trump.

gabrielshorn2013

Aw, nice attempt to divert, deflect, and redirect. Bravo! Now, the "rules" have been published and distributed by the health authorities (CDC, State, Local) since March, right? I take my lead from the health authorities, like CDC or my physician, don't you? Do you take car repair advice from your butcher? Your house maintenance from your dog groomer? Why in the world would you take healthcare advice from a politician or businessman that knows nothing about health care? Oh, that's right, you couldn't figure out the CDC CoViD-19 webpage even after it was painstakingly explained to you back then. Are you sure you have not been infected? What those people did at the rallies was of their own free choice. Nobody forced them to do anything. They got careless, got infected, and infected others. Same goes for the current situation at college campuses. The same is happening in Europe now. Is Trump responsible for them too? Everything you typed may be fact, but nonetheless, irrelevant. The “rules” have been out there since March, on TV, print, radio, and overhead highway signs, right? Those of us that remain uninfected have been diligently following them. ””… his foot on the FDA, HHS and CDC”. While it may appear that way to you and others that are uninformed about how those agencies work, that is simply not true. The dedicated scientists at those agencies will not tolerate unsafe practices being foisted upon the American public for political purposes. I have worked alongside them. Is Dr. Fauci or Dr. Birx a political hack? Dr. Hotez? The folks at Hopkins School of Public Health? No. Save your hyperbolic rhetoric. I’m not defending Trump. I am defending our health care system, and the dedicated people that work within it. And by the way, 1) avoid crowds, 2)heep at least 6 feet apart, 3) wash your hands frequently, and finally, 4) wear a mask.

bosco

You tell 'em, Gabriel. [thumbup][thumbup][thumbup][thumbup][ninja]

Dwasserba

"There you go again"

C.D.Reid

Ear pieces or not, pdl, I'm sure the man will give us a good show of the brilliance the sheeple in his cult like to think he has. After all, he did graduate 76th of 85 students in his law school class and, to them, that's brilliant!

"What I’d said was a quick and stupid rant that I wished I’d never said..."

Joe Biden

bosco

We'll see how he does without MSNBC helping him recall what he was talking about.

[ninja]

newspostreader

"from looking and acting as stupid as he actually is" - Seriously? Have you watched Donnie talk?

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