Natasha Korecki and Alex Isenstadt
Or, as Republican strategist Michael Steel put it: “In a race that has been remarkably stable — in the face of earth-shaking events — the debates, particularly the first one, represent one of the last real chances to change the terms of the contest.”
With those stakes in mind, POLITICO interviewed more than a dozen campaign aides and outside allies about the candidates’ preparations and expectations for the 90-minute showdown at 9 p.m. Tuesday. Here’s a look at what we learned.
Biden’s imperative: Don’t play Trump’s game
Stick to Covid-19 and the economy. Don’t waste valuable time fact-checking the president, except perhaps his most egregious falsehoods. And be ready for Trump to go after your kid — and your brothers.
These are among the pointers Biden’s advisers are giving the candidate in prep sessions ahead of the debate.
Biden took time off the trail last week to prepare with a small group of advisers in his Wilmington, Del. home. His team expects that Trump, given his disregard for rules or boundaries, will get personal and possibly nasty.
One person familiar with the campaign’s thinking said the team is bracing Biden for the likelihood that Trump will attempt to weaponize past business dealings by his family members, who the candidate is especially protective of.
“They’re not only coming after Hunter, they’re coming after Frank and Jim,” the person said of Biden’s son and his brothers.
The former vice president will attempt to draw stark contrasts with Trump on leadership style by asking viewers, for example, to imagine what it would be like to have a president who believes in science.
Much like he did in the Democratic primary, Biden is expected to portray himself as the candidate of unity and healing, while depicting Trump as a president pulling the nation apart.
“The goal for this debate is to not be a fact-checker of Donald Trump. His goal is to communicate directly to the American people and to outline his vision for how we overcome the pandemic, finally,” said a second person familiar with the Biden campaign’s thinking.
Biden could differentiate himself from the president simply by noting that the pandemic death toll has surpassed 200,000 and by paying tribute to the victims — two things Trump has been reluctant to do.
“Biden is someone who speaks to that pain and actually sees people and understands. That’s one of the most important things he can do in this debate,” says Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Hillary Clinton.
Democrats expect the president to do his best to steer the conversation away from coronavirus. They point to Trump’s recent comments at campaign rallies about Hunter Biden as evidence of his probable strategy.
“It’ll be despicable. But I guarantee you that in debate prep, they’re saying the nastiest things about Hunter they can think of because Donald Trump will say anything and is capable of anything … They’re well aware of that,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the center-left group Third Way. “Trump plays only to one audience all the time, it’s the red meat audience.”
Former Hillary Clinton aide Phillipe Reines, who played Trump in mock debates in 2016, said Biden can’t afford to allow Trump to knock him off message. If he could have one do-over in 2016, Reines said, it would be to insist that Clinton abide by one hard-and-fast rule.
“If you find yourself defending yourself for more than 10 seconds, then stop,” Reines said. “There’s an opportunity cost to not talking to the audience. You can bicker with Donald Trump for 45 minutes if you want. You can also talk to 100 million people at home.”
Trump’s strategy: Link Biden to the radical left
Trump has engaged in what allies describe as unconventional debate preparations, relying more on his daily give-and-take with the media than on traditional practice sessions. Still, he has been planning for the debate with several of his top advisers, including Jason Miller, Bill Stepien, and Jared Kushner. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently traveled to Washington for a prep session with the president in the White House that lasted several hours.
Christie and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared with Trump in the White House briefing room Sunday evening. The president said both had been playing the role of Biden in prep sessions.
Still, some senior advisers have privately expressed concern that the president has been unfocused in the run-up to the debate.
Trump aides said they want to use the debate to draw out Biden on some of his more liberal positions, such as his support for the Green New Deal, in hopes of softening the former vice president’s support among more moderate voters. Senior Republicans say Trump’s objective is simple: To spend his time keeping Biden on defense — and to not spend too much time in back-and-forths over his first-term record, especially on Covid-19.
The hope among Republicans is that Trump avoids the fate that befell past incumbents like Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who faltered in the first debate of their reelection campaigns.
“The pressure is on the president,” said Steel, who was also involved in Paul Ryan’s 2012 debate prep and advised former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in his 2016 primary debates against Trump. “The president is clearly consistently down in national polls,” he added, and “it’s very hard to stay sharp and focused and crisp when you’re in the bubble of the White House and an awful lot of people are crawling all over each other to kiss your backside all the time.”
Some Democrats and Republicans think Trump has set Biden up for success by portraying him as several cards short of a full deck. Republicans spent months promoting the idea that Biden can’t string together a sentence without a teleprompter and calling him “Sleepy Joe.” Trump has even suggested that if Biden performs well at the debate it’s because he’s on performance-altering drugs.
“Stupidly, Trump and his side have tried to underestimate Biden. Now they’re screwed,” said Amanda Loveday, a senior adviser with the pro-Biden Unite the Country super PAC and former director of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
Some members of the president’s inner circle regret the strategy and worry the former vice president will have to do little to clear the bar.
Other Republicans, however, argued that’s the wrong way to look at it. If Biden slips up, they say, it will only confirm doubts that Trump has been seeding for months.
“I think a lot of folks have big questions about whether or not Joe Biden can sustain a 90-minute debate performance against Donald Trump,” said Brett O’Donnell, a veteran GOP debate coach who helped Sarah Palin prepare for her 2008 showdown with Biden. “So should Biden have a moment where he seems lost or makes a substantial gaffe, it will only reinforce the argument of the Trump campaign that he’s unfit for office.”
In recent days, Trump advisers and allies have worked to lower expectations for Biden by pointing to his strong performances against Palin in 2008 and Ryan in 2012. Among them is New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who led Ryan’s extensive preparations for his face-off against Biden.
“Joe Biden was very well prepared,” Stefanik said. “The debate stage is where he feels most comfortable.”
Trump has privately acknowledged to allies that Biden — who has appeared in dozens of debates during his nearly five-decade career in politics debates — is an accomplished debater. The president, who focuses relentlessly on press coverage, has also expressed concern that no matter how the former vice president fares, he will be treated by the media as the winner.