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WASHINGTON – The last-minute decision to cut microphones during portions of the final presidential debate injected a new element of uncertainty into a political event that could be a make-or-break moment for President Donald Trump.
After a widely panned debate Sept. 29, during which Trump repeatedly interrupted Democrat Joe Biden, the Commission on Presidential Debates said it will mute each candidate's microphone for two minutes as their rival answers questions – a move experts described as unprecedented in a general election presidential debate.
"Anytime there's a debut of a major new rule like this, it's going to cause a degree of uncertainty," said Aaron Kall, director of debate at University of Michigan.
The decision set off a furious debate about whether the move would lower the temperature of an especially vitriolic and divisive presidential campaign and whether it would benefit Trump or Biden more. Because he's down in the polls, Trump has more at stake in the final debate than Biden, who has the luxury of simply trying to maintain the status quo.
During the first debate and a town hall on NBC News, Trump took a far more combative posture than Biden, appearing agitated by tough questions leveled by moderators, as well as criticism lobbed by his opponent. Biden, by contrast, embraced what was initially meant as an insult from a Trump campaign adviser: that the former vice president's style came off like an episode of the children's television show "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood."
It's unlikely the decision to shut off the microphones for some portions of the debate will have any impact on that dynamic, experts said.
Republicans eyed the final debate, set for 9 p.m. EDT Thursday, as perhaps Trump's last opportunity to reset a campaign in which polls show the president trailing in most major battleground states. Though Trump aides trashed the microphone decision as "unfair," even some critics of the president acknowledged it might work to his advantage.
Aides to Trump signaled for several days that the campaign wants the president to give Biden more room to talk – not just as part of an effort to soften Trump's image but also to give Biden more room to make an error.
An official with knowledge of the campaign's debate strategy speaking on the condition of anonymity said aides press Trump to be "aggressive" while adopting a strategy "shift" that boils down to fewer interruptions.
Whether Trump takes that advice remains to be seen, the person acknowledged, though officials predicted Trump would be more reticent.
"There is encouragement from staff to let Biden talk more," the official said.
Others said the tactics may change because of the mute button decision, but there is no change in the overall strategy.
"I wouldn't want him to change his strategy," said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney who helped with debate prep. "I want him to dominate the debate. I want him to be the stronger one."
Giuliani described the microphone decision as unfair and said it undercuts the debate commission's credibility.
"Let them interrupt," he said. "If the idea is a candidate pays a price for that, fine."
Impact on and off stage
Kall, who edited a book called "Debating The Donald," predicted the decision to cut audio may have limited effect. Candidates will still be allowed to spar – and interrupt – during open discussions, which will make up the majority of the 90-minute debate. Microphones will be cut at set times – at the beginning of each candidate's response to a question – not arbitrarily.
"The issue, in general, is being overblown," Kall said.
Alan Schroeder, a presidential debate historian and author of the book "Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail," said there's no precedent for muting microphones because the problem hadn't cropped up to the same degree in past races.
The muting feature, though historic, is unlikely to change the dynamic between Trump and Biden and is more of a move aimed at those watching at home, he said.
Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the debate commission, noted that both campaigns agreed months ago that the first four minutes of an exchange would be free of interruption. Both candidates, he said, violated that rule during the first debate. On Fox News, Fahrenkopf characterized the decision not as a new rule, which would require negotiation with the campaigns, but enforcement of an old one.
Still, observers said, the change could create a different dynamic on and off stage. For starters, it allows Trump to argue the nonpartisan commission changed the terms to benefit Biden – even though some Republicans say it could help Trump.
Refs: Trump is already attacking the moderator of the final presidential debate
"If the president wants to be a jerk and again do damage to himself, they should let him," said Brendan Buck, who worked for former Republican House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. "There’s no such thing as a Trump-proof debate setup, and all this does is give his campaign one more reason to claim the system is rigged against him."
Trump has not only balked at the rules of the debate, he has also gone after the moderators. He described the moderator of Thursday's debate, NBC News' Kristen Welker, as "extraordinarily unfair" this week, though he praised her this year when she became co-anchor of the network's "Weekend Today" program.
"They made a very wise decision," Trump told Welker.
"Thank you very much," she responded. "Well, we invite you for an interview whenever you’re available."
Enforcement of debate rules can make for unanticipated drama on stage.
In perhaps the best known case, Ronald Reagan complained about the cutting of a microphone during a primary debate in 1980 in New Hampshire. When moderators attempted to cut off his sound, Reagan stood up from the table, took the microphone in his hand and boomed, "Is this on?" As the audience cheered and responded that it was, the moderator again asked for the audio to be cut, Reagan interjected, "I am paying for this microphone."
The audience roared in approval. The microphone was never cut.
In that case, Reagan aides had picked up the cost of the debate, giving the candidate control over the terms of the event.
A question left unanswered is whether Trump will honor the code of silence during the first two minutes when his microphone is cut or use it as an opportunity to needle Biden from across the stage, Schroeder said.
"This is a president who doesn't like being told what to do and what not to do," he said. "And sometimes it is his natural reaction to push back in some form."
Regardless of how the candidates handle the muted microphones, both will have much at stake in the final debate.
Trailing Biden nationally by double digits in some polls, Trump can use his exchanges with Biden to broaden his appeal to suburban women and other constituencies or reprise the combative approach he used in the first debate to fire up core supporters.
Republican leaders said they hope Trump will take the first route.
"It's his only chance," said Judd Gregg, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire who dismissed the strategy of appealing only to the Republican base during a debate watched by millions of voters. "You don't win elections with 30 to 35% of the vote."
For Biden, experts said, the goal is much easier: Do no harm.
With momentum behind him, Biden needs to continue pushing a leadership-oriented message, observers said. The former vice president must stay focused on pocketbook issues even if Trump goes on the attack, Democrats said.
"That's important as a moderator but also for Biden and how he stays in control of his message while striking on key areas like health care and the coronavirus," said Amanda Renteria, political director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign.
The former vice president said he supported silencing microphones so candidates could explain their positions.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Biden told WISN-TV, an ABC affiliate in Milwaukee. “I think there should be more limitations on us not interrupting each other.”
Ken Spain, a veteran GOP consultant, predicted it would take a major unforced error on Biden's part to change the trajectory of the election. It would also require Trump to home in on a compelling closing argument, which Spain said he has failed to do.
"Right now, the only person who can beat Joe Biden is Joe Biden," Spain said.
Contributing: Bart Jansen
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump, Biden debate comes after commission vows to cut microphones