The showdown – coming with just 12 days to go until Election Day on Nov. 3 – is the last chance for both major party standard bearers to make their case in front of a massive national audience watching and listing on TV and radio and streaming online.
And it may be the last opportunity to reach out to the dwindling number of voters who’ve yet to make up their minds.
With so much on the line, it’s no wonder the campaigns are trading fire over numerous aspects regarding the debate, from the mute button to prevent the candidates from interrupting each other during their initial two minute responses at the top of each segment to the topics themselves.
The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) – the bipartisan group that’s been organizing and running these faceoffs for more than three decades – announced late last week that fighting COVID-19, American families, national security, leadership, climate change and race in America will be the major topics debated during six 15-minute sections at the commercial-free 90-minute showdown at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.
Thursday’s 9 p.m. ET faceoff between the two national party standard-bearers comes one week after the second of the three scheduled debates between Biden and Trump was canceled after the commission decided to make it a virtual showdown out of health concerns after the president was briefly hospitalized after being diagnosed with COVID-19. The president refused to take part in a debate that wasn’t being held in person.
And the debate comes with just 12 days to go until Election Day on Nov. 3, and as more than 45 million Americans have already voted through early in-person voting at polling stations or by casting an absentee or mail-in ballot. It may be the last chance for the president to make his case in front of a national audience as he tries to change the needle in a race where the most recent public opinion polls indicate Biden with the edge in most of the crucial battleground states that will decide the winner of the election.
‘It’s imperative for both candidates to show their leadership skills tonight and the ability to heal our country at a very difficult time. We’re facing a global pandemic and an economic crisis and it’s very important for either candidate to show how they would lead,” emphasized Lauren Zelt, a GOP consultant and veteran of Republican presidential and Senate campaigns.
Here are five things to watch for at the final showdown before Election Day.
Will the candidates refrain from interrupting each other?
The first debate late last month in Cleveland, Ohio, was a chaotic clash.
The showdown – described as a “debacle” and even a “s— show” – was plagued by incessant interruptions and insults. The president was the larger of the two culprits – according to a Fox News analysis, the president interrupted Biden and moderator Chris Wallace of “Fox News Sunday” a total of 145 times, with the former vice president interrupting Trump and Wallace 67 times.
The commission responded by including a mute button. But will the candidates – specifically the president – play along?
In an interview Tuesday morning on “Fox & Friends,” the president said he “may” change his strategy and cut back on the interruptions, but he was far from definitive.
“They said if you let him talk, he’ll lose his chain of thought because he’s gonzo,” Trump said as he referred to Biden. “And I understand that. But I also understand that as he’s going down the line and issuing lies, you know, generally it’s OK to, you know, really attack that.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany sees a benefit in letting Biden talk without interruption. In an interview on FOX Business’ “Varney & Co,” she predicted “the upside of the muted mics is Joe Biden will be forced to speak more than 30 seconds, he will inevitably walk himself into a few disasters.”
Biden, speaking to reporters before boarding his flight to Nashville on Thursday afternoon, said “hopefully [Trump’s] gonna play by the rules.”
Will Trump go full throttle on Hunter Biden?
At the first debate, Trump repeatedly spotlighted the controversies surrounding the former vice president’s son Hunter Biden. The president zeroed in on the younger Biden’s acknowledged past drug use. But Trump’s attacks may have fallen flat after the former vice president declared that he was proud of his son – who along with millions of other Americans – had battled to overcome an addiction.
But thanks to a recent controversial report in the New York Post that’s gone viral – Trump may feel like he has more ammunition to fire in this final debate.
The president, his reelection campaign and surrogates, have repeatedly spotlighted last week’s report to claim that Biden’s actions as vice president during President Obama’s administration were influenced by his son’s business dealings in Ukraine. The Trump campaign launched a new ad targeting Biden over the story and on Sunday night the president charged that “as far as I’m concerned, the Biden family is a criminal enterprise.”
The Biden campaign and allies have blasted the report as a “smear campaign” and point to the recent GOP-led Senate investigation that found no evidence of wrongdoing on the then-vice president’s part with regard to Ukraine.
Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller made it clear that if the debate’s moderator, NBC News’s Kristen Welker, doesn’t bring up the controversy, the president will.
“If Kristen Welker, the moderator, doesn’t bring it up, I think you’re pretty safe to assume that the president will,” Miller said on “Mornings with Maria.” “Again, these are real simple questions.”
And White House director of strategic communications Alyssa Farah predicted on Fox Business that “whether it’s asked or he has the opportunity to bring it up, he’s going to get into this issue of Hunter Biden. The American people need to know if the Biden family in any way is beholden to China.”
But Fox News political analyst Karl Rove emphasized that it would be more effective for the president to focus on the economy as opposed to the Hunter Biden “scandal.”
Rove, who served as the top political adviser to President George W. Bush in the White House and on Bush’s two presidential election victories, acknowledged “we do know that Hunter Biden is a bad actor” and allegedly “used his father to make money with [Ukrainian energy firm] Burisma.”
But in an appearance on Fox News’ “America’s Newsroom,” Rove argued that “I just don’t think that in the last 13 days it’s as effective to talk about this than it is to talk about how Joe Biden is going to raise your taxes, diminish your savings, slow down the economy, attack our energy independence, raise your utility bill, all the stuff that Trump could spend the time between now and the election talking about.”
Will Trump grill Biden over court packing and fracking?
While it’s a sure bet that Trump will bring up Hunter Biden, it’s also smart money to bet on the president grilling Biden on whether he’ll push to expand the size of the Supreme Court if elected. The president and his team sense a political opportunity here, as polling in recent days indicates the move -known as court packing by opponents – is unpopular with many Americans.
The president and the Republican majority in the Senate are fast tracking before the election the confirmation of conservative federal appeals court judge Amy Coney Barrett to succeed the late liberal-leaning justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That move would tilt the Supreme Court to a 6-3 conservative majority, and many progressives are calling for Biden – if elected – to expand the numbers of justices.
Biden refused to answer the question during the first debate – but last week said that he’d make his feelings known after the full Senate votes on the Barrett confirmation, which would likely happen early next week.
Biden said in an interview with CBS News “60 Minutes” that made public on Thursday that if elected, he would establish a bipartisan commission of scholars to study a possible court overhaul. The announcement immediately elicited criticism by some groups on the left.
Don’t be surprised if the president also challenges Biden on whether he supports banning fracking, which is the environmentally controversial practice of shooting liquids at high pressure below the earth’s surface to open fissures and extract oil and gas.
Vice President Mike Pence, at his debate two weeks ago with Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris, charged at least five times that a Biden administration would ban fracking.
With climate change one of the six topics at the debate, it’s pretty much a sure thing that Trump will press the attack. But the spotlight on the environment also gives Biden plenty of ammunition to return fire and once again accuse the president of being a “climate arsonist.”
Will Biden keep bringing it back to the coronavirus?
The simple answer is yes.
The pandemic swept the nation in February and March. More than 220,000 COVID-19-related deaths have now been recorded and more than 8.3 million infections have been confirmed across the country. New cases have been surging in recent days nationwide – but most acutely in the Midwest and West. Over the past week the daily average of new cases stands at 59,000, the highest since early August. And the rise comes as the cooler weather is forcing many Americans indoors.
Over the past seven months, Biden has repeatedly criticized the president for initially downplaying the severity of the outbreak, and for botching the federal government’s response. The president has defended his actions and has repeatedly claimed that the country’s “turning the corner” in combating the coronavirus.
Biden in the first debate and Harris during the vice presidential showdown prosecuted the case against Trump and it’s a safe bet Biden will continue to fire away on Thursday night, armed with new controversial comments Trump’s made in recent days.
The president, who takes the debate stage for the first time as a patient recovering from COVID-19, needs a better answer that he had at the first face-off.
Will Biden clear his low bar for the debate?
Biden’s durability will once again be the spotlight.
For six months, the president, the Trump campaign and allied groups and surrogates have repeatedly questioned the 77-year-old Biden’s mental acuity. But by lowering the bar for Biden, the president and his campaign helped Biden easily beat debate expectations in Cleveland.
The former vice president’s mission in Nashville remains the same as in the first debate – avoid any major stumbles or gaffes.
Biden’s leading Trump in the public opinion polls with 12 days to go until Election Day. His game plan is to play it safe.
With that in mind, Biden appears to be coming to the debate prepared. He’s spent four of the five past days with no public events so he could prepare for the final faceoff.