Debate night: How Joe Biden and Donald Trump are preparing for their big clash

Joe Biden and Donald Trump 
Joe Biden and Donald Trump

In the 2008 election campaign an entire replica debate stage was constructed for Joe Biden. It was designed to resemble the one he would use in his vice presidential debate and was set up in a hotel in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.

For a handful of nights leading up to the crucial clash Mr Biden would stand in position. The lights would be on, the cameras rolling. Beside him on the stage was Jennifer Granholm, then the governor of Michigan, playing his real opponent - Sarah Palin.

“Biden held mock debates at the exact time the debate was set to start, just to reorient the body clock,” said Jeff Nussbaum, Mr Biden’s speech writer at the time, as he recalled the intensity of that preparation 12 years ago to The Telegraph.

“Every night there would be a mock debate and then the debate prep staff would work late into the night going over tape, reviewing answers. They would eventually deliver Biden a packet of notes to his house so when he woke up he could review it.”

This time round the stakes are even higher. It is not the vice presidency Mr Biden is seeking, but the top job. He has before him not one head-to-head debate but three. And his opponent is a man who has made a reputation of ignoring conventions and going in hard.

The first presidential debate of the 2020 election cycle takes place tonight. It has been touted widely as the most important single day remaining in the campaign, a moment when as many as 100 million Americans could tune in to see the candidates unvarnished.

It is Donald Trump who needs the game-changer. Throughout the last six months he has been between five and ten percentage points behind Mr Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, in nationwide polls. Approaching the final month, a poll of polls has the lead around seven points.

But that also means Mr Biden has more to lose. The Democrat has undergone few public grillings since he wrapped up his party's nomination in the spring, largely eschewing lengthy interviews and press conferences. There is no hiding on the debate stage.

The exact form and intensity of debate prep the two septuagenarians have been going through ahead of the 90-minute clash in Cleveland, Ohio, remains little known. Advisers from both sides have remained tight-lipped on what is happening behind closed doors.

But there are public hints. For the Biden camp, it is safe to assume something close to how he prepared in 2008 is taking place. This week his public schedule has been sparse, with the pack of reporters following his campaign being told some mornings not to expect an appearance that day.

The low profile had Mr Trump mocking his disappearance as he continues his endless tour of battleground states last week. The right-leaning New York Post followed up on Friday with a front page photograph of a packed crowd with the words: “Where’s Joe?”

Mr Biden almost certainly will be rehearsing against someone playing Mr Trump. Usually a fellow Democratic politician or aide fills the role. It is designed to harden the candidate to attacks they are likely to receive in the real debate.  In 2016 for Hillary Clinton’s campaign it was Philippe Reines, one of her senior advisers.

In a piece for The Washington Post on Friday, Mr Reines revealed the lengths he went to impersonate Mr Trump and what he learned about his style.  He watched every one of Mr Trump’s 11 Republican primary debates three times: first from start to finish, then only exchanges Mr Trump was involved in and finally just the candidate's comments alone. He even bought an ill-fitting suit and wore a red tie for the part.

“When he was on offense, his attacks on (and nicknames for) Clinton were honed and simple by the time the debates began in September. But he rarely, if ever, defended himself,” Mr Reines wrote about what he learned from those viewings and what he channeled.

“No matter the attack against him - and there were some doozies - he dispensed with them quickly. And in the GOP primary debates, his answers involved three parts: I am great; you are terrible; and a nonsensical digression that often changed the subject entirely.”

Read more: US Election poll tracker - who is in the lead?

Is Mr Trump preparing with a similar intensity? He claims not much. “I sort of prepare every day, by just doing what I’m doing,” the president told Fox News last week. But details have leaked out that suggest special discussions are being held.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Mr Trump recently watched both of Mr Biden’s vice presidential debates in 2008 and 2012, when he is deemed to have performed acceptably against Ms Palin and Paul Ryan.

The paper also cited officials saying Mr Trump has been bouncing around possible attack lines and talking points with aides in an informal setting. “The president is constantly prepping,” said Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff. “We’re not taking it for granted.”

Mr Trump revealed on Sunday that Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, and Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, have been helping him behind the scenes. Both come from the 'take no prisoners' school of politics.

History shows few debates that fundamentally alter the campaign. Ronald Reagan pulled away from incumbent Jimmy Carter after appearing genial in their 1980 debate, countering attacks that he was dangerous.

Richard Nixon mopping his sweaty top lip against a young John F Kennedy in the first ever televised debates in 1960 is much cited, though historians disagree on its impact. But they are moments that have the potential to cut through.

The Biden camp will know all too well the big danger. The 77-year-old has throughout this year been portrayed as mentally fading by his opponents. The Trump campaign often circulates clips of him tripping over his words and imply cognitive issues.

The president himself has, in none too subtle ways, done likewise. Mr Biden “doesn’t know he’s alive”, Mr Trump has said. He claimed “something is wrong” with his opponent, saying Mr Biden “can’t put two sentences together”.

The Democratic nominee has the perfect chance to dismiss those concerns tonight. An energetic, combative display just when voters are watching could cement his lead. After all, Mr Biden appeared in around a dozen debates in the Democratic primaries and had no disasters, even if he did not always flourish.

The problem for the president is the reverse. He has set the bar so low for Mr Biden. What happens when , contrary to what the president has been telling voters, it turns out his Democratic opponent can actually “put two sentences together”?

The error in expectations management has clearly dawned on Mr Trump. He recently claimed without evidence Mr Biden took performance-enhancing drugs before a recent town hall event. Or, as the president put it, he was given “a big fat shot in the ass".

But that does not mean Mr Trump will be an easy opponent. The great discussion going on in Democratic circles is what Mr Biden should do when the president starts throwing his low blows: “Go high”, as former first lady Michelle Obama likes to say, or stand toe-to-toe?

David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former campaign guru, favours a middle way: "Jujutsu." He argues the best approach is turning the president’s energy against him, as is taught in the martial art, pivoting on the attacks and using them to make another related point.

So if Mr Trump goes after Mr Biden’s son Hunter for his business ties to Ukraine or his past addiction problems - something Democrats expect - why not turn it into a ‘have you no decency’ line rather than get bogged down in the issue?

Read more: Donald Trump vs Joe Biden policies

The Biden campaign appears to accept it is best their man does not become a fact-checker of the president. Leave that to the cable show analysts, the argument goes, and instead treat the debate as a chance to speak down the camera to voters.

“We know Donald Trump is going to lie through his teeth,” one Democratic source was quoted by Fox News saying at the weekend, in a sign of that strategy. “Joe Biden’s goal is to share his agenda, his plan and his values."

Whatever happens, moments will be replayed ad nauseam and scrutinised for every bit of potential electoral significance. Each side of a deeply divided electorate, one which to an unusual degree has already made up its mind on the election, will cheer every verbal blow delivered to the other.

Will any of it change the dial? Here is one helpful metric: A week later, is anyone still talking about the debate? The Trump camp will be hoping yes, the Biden camp very much no. And that says everything you need to know about the state of the race.

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