CLEVELAND – Ahead of the most important debate of his political career, Joe Biden huddled with his team of senior advisers in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, last week to try to predict the moves of one of the most unpredictable men in politics, President Donald Trump.
The former vice president took a break last Thursday from campaign events to ramp up debate preparation, turning to Bob Bauer, a senior Biden adviser and former White House general counsel, to play the role of Trump during mock debates. Biden’s schedule remained blank Monday.
Tuesday’s debate at Case Western University in Cleveland – the first of three between the two presidential candidates – gives Biden a chance to answer the months-long assault from Trump and his allies questioning the former vice president’s mental fitness.
It could reinforce his leads in national and battleground polls, or if he performs poorly, it could give Trump a chance to to change the trajectory of the race.
Trump has also been preparing for the Cleveland showdown. He said Sunday he has had practice sessions with the help of friends, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and that “a combination of these two” have portrayed Biden.
While the Biden campaign spent the weekend downplaying the debate’s significance in a race that Biden has consistently led, some Democrats called the long-awaited encounter with Trump the most critical moment of the campaign.
Biden has an opportunity to “seize a real advantage in this race” with a strong performance, said David Plouffe, former adviser to former President Barack Obama and a Biden supporter.
Plouffe, speaking on his podcast last week, called the upcoming debate “one of the more important moments in American political history.”
“If Biden has a really strong debate, it doesn’t mean the rest of them don’t matter, but I think they’ll matter less – and I think he will cement a lot of the gains and leads he has in this election,” Plouffe said.
Other top advisers working with Biden for debate preparation, sources familiar with preparations confirmed, include former vice president chief of staff Ron Klain – a debate coach for Democratic presidential candidates, including Obama, since 1992 – as well as chief strategist Mike Donilon and senior adviser Anita Dunn.
‘Reassuring and plausible’ the goal for Biden, but not a ‘fact-checker’
The debate comes amid polls showing Biden with a small – but steady – lead against Trump. The website RealClearPolitics, which tracks political polling, gives Biden a 6.1 percentage point lead over Trump in its average of national polls. But polls in several battleground states that could decide the election show the race much closer.
In rallies, interviews and news conferences, Trump has previewed his debate strategy: A defense of his COVID-19 pandemic response, pledges to bring the back the economy, and attacks on Biden and his supporters, including the business activities of the former vice president’s son, Hunter Biden.
Don’t look for Biden to “fact check” each of Trump’s misstatements,according to the Biden campaign, but expect him to lay out his plan to address the coronavirus and rebuild the economy. Biden will also cast himself as a unifier and Trump as a divider who has lied to the American people and puts himself above the nation’s interests.
Biden is historically an uneven debater. He has a tendency to ramble on stage, often appearing flustered and on the defense when pressed by opponents. Democratic allies say it’s critical for Biden not to let Trump get him worked up.
Biden “has to be reassuring and plausible,” said Jay Carney, former White House press secretary under Obama and a Biden supporter. “That’s something Joe Biden can do pretty effectively and has done. In this case, it certainly helps that the country knows him and they know he’s been there.
“The key for him is to expect something unorthodox, expect a lot of insults,” Carney said, “and to stay on his game and focus on the issues that actual voters care about – not names he’s being called or untruths that are being thrown out there.”
Encouraging for Biden: arguably his best debate performance during the Democratic primary came in March when he faced off against Sen. Bernie Sanders – a one-on-one format like what’s coming Tuesday.
Biden will also have fresh ammunition – an explosive report from the New York Times that said Trump paid only $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency and his first year in office.
Trump, who has always cast himself as a non-traditional politician, and his aides minimized the amount of traditional preparation he was undertaking.
“He gets challenging, hostile questions routinely,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump reelection campaign. “Being president is debate prep.”
Trump has told reporters “this whole thing,” referring to the presidency, amounts to debate prep. “You know, what I do is debate prep every day,” Trump said. “I’m taking questions from you people all the time.”
Asked how many hours he has spent on debate preparation, Trump said: “Well, I don’t know. I mean, a little time. I mean, not a lot … I’m running a country.”
In shift, Trump now builds Biden up
Both the Trump and Biden campaigns embraced the traditional approach of building up the opponent’s debate skills in an effort to lower expectations.
For the president, that’s no easy feat: Trump and his allies have spent months challenging Biden’s mental acuity. Now they’re describing him as a world-class debater who has been honing his skills since his election to the U.S. Senate in 1972 and to the vice presidency in 2008.
“Maybe he’s going to be great at the debate,” Trump said during a campaign rally Thursday in Jacksonville, Florida. “You know, he’s been doing it for 47 years.”
Likewise, the Biden campaign is looking to raise expectations for Trump.
“Trump will be ready,” a Biden campaign aide said, adding that Trump “spends all day arguing with people and press.”
The Biden campaign has also tried to dramatically lower expectations on the debate’s significance, noting that polling, both nationally and in battleground states, has changed little over months and continues to show the former vice president ahead.
A Biden aide said the “contours of this race are pretty solidified” – that Trump mishandled his response to the coronavirus pandemic – and there isn’t a debate performance by either candidate that will “fundamentally reshape the race.”
“Even if he has a performance perceived to be good,” the aide said of Trump, “American life will still be defined by his failure to contain COVID.”
For Biden, the debate isn’t a “high-pressure situation” because of his standing in the polls, said Jen Psaki, former Obama communications director.
“For this debate, (Biden) needs to not get pulled into the swamp of wherever Trump wants it to go,” she said. “He needs to not be distracted to him by him, even if he’s trying to pull him into the gutter, and he needs to remember he’s speaking directly to the American people. That’s where the opportunity is.”
Trump’s town hall performance has some in GOP worried about debate
As president, Trump has much more ability to control the message at a news conference or a White House event. At a political debate, he has to contend with a moderator – Chris Wallace of Fox News on Tuesday – and a presidential rival who won’t hesitate to push back.
“I think Trump is going to be in for a surprise here,” said Alan Schroeder, author of “Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.”
Trump is “typically over-confident in his ability to wing it” and sees debate as opportunities “to spin, not educate,” said Jennifer Mercieca, who teaches classes on presidential communication and debate at Texas A&M University.
Some of the president’s supporters privately express concerns that he is not taking the debates seriously.
“The debates are shaping up to be critically important for a Trump campaign that’s consistently running behind,” said Dan Eberhart, an energy company executive and GOP fundraiser. “The debates might be his last best chance for a big enough moment to slingshot around Biden before the checkered flag drops a month or so later.”
Eberhart said he and other Republicans were alarmed by Trump’s performance in a recent ABC News town hall in Philadelphia. Trump faced questions from a roomful of undecided voters, but critics described his answers as rambling, factually inaccurate and radically at odds with reality.
Their opponents – Mitt Romney, John Kerry, and Walter Mondale – seized the rhetorical advantage, and Biden will no doubt try to do likewise.
“We will likely hear Biden say, ‘Come on, man’ to Trump, challenging his authority,” said Mercieca, author of ‘Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump.’ “Trump doesn’t handle humiliation well, so Biden may be able to put Trump on tilt.”
Regardless how things shake out, the debate isn’t guaranteed to provide the anointed winner a bounce.
Strong debates against Trump didn’t help Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Gallup found that voters overwhelmingly saw Clinton as doing a better job than Trump in all three debates – 61%-27% in the first, 53%-35% in the second and 60%-31% in the third. But she still lost the election.
“Debates, they don’t oftentimes really help you,” said Todd Belt, professor and political management program director at George Washington University. “But they can hurt you depending on how people remember them and how they’re played out in the press days afterward.”
Joey Garrison reported from Washington.