WASHINGTON - Republican President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, are set to debate Tuesday night, five weeks ahead of the Nov. 3 election, in the first of three planned face-to-face encounters over the next month.
The high-stakes event in the midwestern city of Cleveland, Ohio, comes as Biden has maintained about a 7-percentage-point advantage over Trump for weeks in national polls, threatening to make Trump the third U.S. president in the past four decades to lose reelection for a second four-year term in the White House.
However, the race is closer in several key battleground states, which raises the possibility that Trump could once again lose the popular vote - as he did against Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 - and still win more of the all-important state electors to claim victory.
There are estimates that 100 million Americans will watch the two presidential contenders square off for 90 minutes in the widely televised and livestreamed event, facing questions from Fox News journalist Chris Wallace, as about 100 people watch in person. Until now, the candidates have not appeared together.
Wallace said he will pose questions on six topics in 15-minute segments: the candidates' records; the coronavirus pandemic that has killed a world-leading 204,000 people in the U.S.; Trump's nomination of conservative jurist Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court; the U.S. economy that has been buffeted by the pandemic; the integrity of the election; and "race and violence" in U.S. cities.
One late-breaking topic is also sure to be a focal point - a New York Times report on Sunday that the billionaire Trump paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016, the year he ran for the presidency, and in 2017, his first year in office. The report detailed how Trump, who has often boasted of his business savvy, has written off hundreds of millions of dollars in business losses.
Trump called the report "totally fake news," but the Biden campaign on Sunday highlighted it to advance its contention that Trump is out of touch with U.S. workers he claims to be fighting for. The Biden campaign started airing an ad showing that a typical elementary school teacher, a firefighter, a construction manager and a registered nurse all pay thousands of dollars in taxes a year while Trump paid $750.
Debates in past presidential campaigns have occasionally proved crucial to the outcome, but whether that is the case this year is open to question. Opinion surveys show that more than 90% of voters say they have already made up their minds and have no intention of changing their choice.
Early voting has started in many states, occasionally with long lines of people waiting to cast their ballots. Millions more have requested or been sent mail-in ballots to avoid meeting face-to-face with other voters on Election Day amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump has claimed, without evidence, that the sharp increase in mail-in voting this year will lead to a "rigged" election against him, and he refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power at January's presidential inauguration if Biden wins.
The topics picked by Wallace for the debate reflect the news of the day in the United States, although critics say that Wallace's description of race and violence in the U.S. mirrors Trump's contention that protests over police abuse of minorities in recent months have been led by "thugs," rioters and anarchists.
Democrats supporting Biden say instead, the discussion should be about systemic racism in the U.S. and the country's national reckoning over race relations brought to the fore by the May death of a Black man, George Floyd, while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the deaths of other Black people at the hands of police.
Ahead of their encounter, Trump has questioned Biden's mental acuity and sought to diminish Biden's skill as a debater, claiming, without evidence, that the Democrat must have been drugged when his debate performance improved as the large field of Democratic presidential contenders was winnowed to a single opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, before Sanders conceded to Biden.
"I will be strongly demanding a Drug Test of Sleepy Joe Biden prior to, or after, the Debate on Tuesday night,' Trump said on Twitter. "Naturally, I will agree to take one also. His Debate performances have been record setting UNEVEN, to put it mildly. Only drugs could have caused this discrepancy???"
The Biden campaign retorted, "Vice President Biden intends to deliver his debate answers in words. If the president thinks his best case is made in urine, he can have at it."
Trump tweeted back, "Joe Biden just announced that he will not agree to a Drug Test. Gee, I wonder why?"
Dos and don'ts
Aaron Kall, the debate coach at the University of Michigan and co-author of the book "Debating the Donald," said that even with perhaps fewer undecided voters than in past presidential election years, the two candidates need to exhibit a certain competency for voters.
Biden, now 77, served for 36 years in the U.S. Senate and eight as vice president under former President Barack Obama. Kall said Biden "needs to reassure undecided voters that he's up physically and mentally to the task of being president, and holding your own with the incumbent president for 90 minutes is an excellent way to do this."
"Biden needs to contrast his experience, agenda and vision for the future with President Trump," Kall said.
Meanwhile, Kall said, Trump, at 74, "needs to make the case for why he should be reelected and deserves another four years in office. The economy is generally viewed as his biggest strength in opinion polls, and he must have a detailed plan to decrease unemployment and increase economic growth."
With the latest phase of coronavirus spending in Congress stalled, Trump should make his specific vision for that be known, according to Kall. Moreover, while health care is not one of the six topics for the first debate, Trump "should be able to articulate his desired replacement for the Affordable Care Act, since this will likely come up during the Supreme Court section" of the debate, Kall said.
The debate coach said Trump "is hoping that Biden will make a major disqualifying error, but relying upon your opponent to make a mistake is not a sound debate strategy."
Trump often exaggerates claims about the news of the day, but Kall said Biden "needs to pick his battles regarding President Trump's falsehoods, since they aren't all created equal, and there will likely be many of them."
"It's impossible to let some things go," Kall said, "but Biden can't spend the majority of his precious speaking time on the defensive and correcting President Trump. Biden has publicly stated that he intends to fact-check President Trump in real-time, but that would be a mistake."
He advised Trump against questioning Biden's mental fitness for the presidency.
"These accusations by President Trump prior to the debate have already decreased expectations for Biden and made the incumbent's debate task even that much harder," Kall said.
"President Trump has generally been successful at turning his political opponents into caricatures, but it's much more difficult to do this when someone else is sharing the stage with you," Kall said. "President Trump would be better off attacking the Obama-Biden record, while contrasting it with his last four years in office."