WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden will meet face-to-face for the first time in the 2020 campaign Tuesday in what analysts expect will be a bruising presidential debate hinged on personal attacks.
The 90-minute contest in Cleveland, the first debate of the general election, will be stripped of typical debate standards. There will be no handshake because of coronavirus concerns and no opening statements, fitting for an unconventional race that has been eclipsed by the coronavirus pandemic, social upheaval and a heated Supreme Court battle over the vacancy left by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg's death.
A little over a month from Election Day, Trump will seek to close his nearly 7-point deficit in national polls while Biden will present his case for why he's a better alternative, strategists and historians say. Achieving these aims, they say, may mean that touchy subjects, such as attacks on the candidates' children, will be on display for a national audience in prime time.
"I think every aspect of this thing is going to be just a barroom brawl from the very beginning," said Terry Sullivan, a Republican strategist who managed Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential run. "That machismo is going to really come across when they're face-to-face, and Trump is going to try to do some things to needle him."
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Biden will be forced to balance standing up to Trump's no-holds-barred approach without losing his cool while also portraying himself as a steady-hand alternative, said Nick Everhart, a Republican media consultant.
“He’s running a campaign built on the idea that he's this competent, tempered and even-keeled leader who would handle the challenges of the moment more calmly," Everhart said. "In being tough and fighting back, they don’t want to undermine his macro message that he's more of a steady alternative compared to President Trump.”
Biden has insisted he can meet the challenge, telling supporters at a virtual fundraiser on Sept. 10 that he knows "how to handle bullies."
“I hope I don’t get baited into getting into a brawl with this guy,” Biden said. “It’s going to be hard because I predict he’s going to be shouting” and trying to interrupt throughout the debates.
Trump has leveled harsh criticism on his opponent, accusing Biden of taking performance-enhancing drugs, questioning his mental acuity and repeatedly attacking his son Hunter Biden.
The former vice president, for his part, delivered an impassioned speech calling Trump "unfit" for office after a report from The Atlantic alleged the president disparaged members of the U.S. military who have been captured and killed, a claim Trump denies. Biden also declared Trump a threat to the safety of Americans for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has left more than 200,000 Americans dead, and he has accused him of fanning the flames of racially motivated violence. Biden may have more fodder after The New York Times published a story Sunday showing Trump paid $750 in personal income tax in 2016 and 2017 and paid none in other years because of tax write-offs and business losses.
Though the race has tightened, Trump remains behind in several battleground states, according to recent polls. A Washington Post-ABC News last week found Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, lead Trump and Vice President Mike Pence 53%-43% among registered voters, virtually unmoved from over the summer.
"He needs to do something to shake up and move the narrative because right now the status quo isn't going to get him to a win," Everhart added.
Tensions could build from the outset: There will be no handshake between Trump and Biden over COVID-19 concerns, according to Peter Ayre, senior adviser to the Commission on Presidential Debates. There will also be no opening statements from the candidates or the moderator, Chris Wallace, who will pose the first question to Trump.
Neither the candidates nor Wallace will wear masks once they take the stage at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic.
The Trump-Biden cage match is likely to be even more contentious than the president's first run against Hillary Clinton four years ago – in part because none of the contestants are women.
"Clinton had to worry about debating as a woman and her 'likability,' whereas Biden doesn't," said Jennifer Mercieca, a Texas A&M University professor who teaches classes on presidential communication, argumentation and debate, and propaganda.
In the meantime, she said, "Biden has shown that he's willing to be aggressive when he needs to, and I think we'll see him match Trump's aggressiveness."
Trump, who like this year was trailing in the polls as the debates approached in 2016, was criticized for his aggressive attacks on Clinton and is likely to employ the same strategy this time around. Trump aides have said for months, privately, that they need to chip away at Biden's support to have a chance.
"Trump's style is to go in for the personal attack," said debate historian Alan Schroeder. "He certainly did that with Hillary Clinton, and I expect he will do that with Biden as well."
Trump’s attacks on Biden have been so pervasive they are central to his core message, cropping up at both campaign and official White House events. He has used the term “Sleepy Joe” at least 72 times in September at rallies and official White House events, according to a USA TODAY analysis of transcripts.
Few areas have been out of bounds for Trump, who has leveled baseless accusations in interviews that Biden is taking performance enhancing drugs and repeatedly mocked the former vice president for wearing a mask, among other attacks.
Trump has traditionally been far more likely to level ad hominem attacks while standing alone at a podium or during an interview than while sharing a stage with the subject of his barbs. But in his 2016 debates with Clinton, Trump described his Democratic opponent as “angry” and a “liar,” and he called her campaign “crooked.”
Despite the vitriol, Clinton and Trump largely left their families out of the race. When asked to say something positive about each other during a debate on Oct. 9, 2016, Clinton said she respected his children, whom she described as "incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald."
This time Trump has targeted his Democratic challenger's son Hunter, who has become a sore spot for both the former vice president and the president.
Hunter Biden's role on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father led an international anti-corruption push in Kyiv under the Obama administration sparked a GOP Senate-led investigation that found no evidence of wrongdoing. Trump was impeached for pressing Ukraine's president to investigate the Bidens but was acquitted by the Senate.
"Where is Hunter?" Trump asked supporters at a recent rally in Fayetteville, N.C., repeating a phrase that has become a battle cry on his campaign. "I think it will be brought up in the debate."
Sullivan noted that Trump has more to lose this time around.
"Nobody thought he was going to win, and he didn't think he was going to win," he said. "Now it's ridiculously personal because he'll be embarrassed if he loses, so he's much more defensive than he was last time."
But the president faces a historic challenge as well. Incumbent presidents seeking reelection tend to struggle in their first debate, analysts point out.
President Barack Obama faltered in his first debate against challenger Mitt Romney in 2012, as did President George W. Bush against John Kerry in 2004. President George H.W. Bush struggled to gain his footing in his first debate in 1992, squeezed between challengers Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. The examples go back decades: Ronald Reagan doddered his way through a 1984 clash with Walter Mondale; four years before that, Jimmy Carter stumbled through his one and only debate with Reagan.
Trump has not had to debate anyone during his presidency, Schroeder pointed out, while Biden sharpened his skills during the Democratic presidential primary race.
"Four years as an incumbent means four years in which you've been deferred and people are telling you what you want to hear," said Schroeder, author of "Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail." "On a debate stage, your opponent is going to do the opposite."
The Trump campaign spent majority of the summer excoriating Biden as incoherent and unable to string sentences together without a teleprompter. The campaign has accused the former vice president – who has campaigned largely virtually because of coronavirus concerns – of using the pandemic to get out of traditional campaigning and even the debates.
"There's this idea or thesis that Biden is going to slip up or isn't sharp enough to handle the moment, but I think if you look at it historically, he's performed pretty well in most debates," Everhart said, with the exception of the early Democratic primary debates in which a gaffe-prone Biden was dragged for dated cultural references and cutting himself off early.
"But the 10-candidate vs head-to-head debates are night and day," he said.
In recent weeks, Trump and his campaign aides have insisted Biden is likely to do well in the first round, given his decades of experience and more recent match-ups during the Democratic primary race.
"He's been doing it for 47 years. I've been doing it for 3½ years, so he should be able to beat me. He's much more experienced," Trump told supporters at a rally in Ohio last week.
There will be a "small number of ticketed guests" instead of a traditionally packed audience, according to the commission. The lack of crowd may undercut Trump, though it won't make him any less aggressive, said Mercieca, author of "Demagogue For President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump."
"Trump, in particular, feeds off of audience reaction," Mercieca said. "He's like a child who acts out in class. It works well when he is performing for his classmates, but it doesn't work so well in the principal's office."
Robert Barnett, a veteran Washington attorney who has advised Democratic presidential candidates on debate preparation since 1976, argued that Trump and Biden are likely to approach Tuesday very differently, with Trump leaning heavily on his law-and-order message and his attempt to frame Democrats as “socialists.” Biden, on the other hand, will almost certainly focus on the pandemic, the economic turmoil it has caused and Trump’s response to both problems.
The coronavirus, he said, is likely to change the landscape of the debate, just as it has for election.
“This time what’s going to be more important than the funny line or the personal attack is going to be ‘What’s your life like the next day?’ when you have to remotely school your child, search for a job if you’re unemployed and, God forbid, battle a terrible pandemic,” Barnett said.
Aaron Kall, debate coach at the University of Michigan, said he expects a lower-key set of debates, in part because it would be in Biden's best interest.
While Trump would likely want a loud contest, he said, Biden would be better off to refuse the bait and draw methodical contrasts on issues like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Supreme Court.
"A contentious exchange would be magnified and create its own media cycles," Kall said.
The circumstances are also different this election, Kall noted.
Trump performed poorly in his first debate in 2016, and felt he had to be more aggressive in the second – especially after the revelation of the "Access Hollywood" tape in which he was heard speaking about groping women.
Amid that furor, Trump packed the gallery with women who claimed improper sexual advances by President Bill Clinton and went on the attack against Hillary Clinton during the debate.
The Trump-Biden showdown lacks that kind of melodrama, Everhart said.
"The problem or challenge in facing off against Joe Biden is you are talking about someone with a far greater degree of goodwill and higher favorability, who in showing empathy has really created an emotional connection with people, and you risk real blowback if you go over the top," he said.
An expected surge in early voting and vote-by-mail this year over COVID-19 concerns may raise the stakes for the first match-up. Twenty-nine states begin mailing absentee ballots to voters in September, and an additional nine states open up in-person voting this month.
"With so many states allowing more than just Election Day voting options, every day becomes a mini Election Day, so the importance of winning along the way each and every day and not just cresting and peaking in that final stretch to Election Day is crucial to winning in a way it hasn’t been in so many states before," Everhart said.
Trump, Barnett said, often goes back to what has worked for him in the past – and in the case of debates, his performance in the 2016 primary debates is a familiar balm.
“Diminishing, dominating and dissing,” Barnett said. “I think he will revert to that. But I’m not sure that that would be a wise move because I think people are serious right now because they’re facing challenges like none of us have ever faced in our lifetime.”
If Trump does bring his campaign trail insults onto the debate stage, Barnett’s advice for Biden is straightforward: “Avoid taking the bait. I think the more the vice president can stay on the substantive issues, the better he’ll do.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump-Biden presidential debate: Analysts expect 'brawl' in Cleveland