Things to watch in the first Trump-Biden debate


President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden will face off for the first time on Tuesday in what could be the most consequential debate of the 2020 presidential election.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, a heated fight brewing over the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat and voters in a handful of states already casting their ballots, the first presidential debate will give both candidates their highest-profile chance to date to make their cases.

Fox News anchor Chris Wallace will moderate the showdown and has already selected a series of topics to guide the discussion.

Here are five things to watch for on Tuesday night. 

What’s the focus of the debate?

Wallace has broken up the debate into six parts: the coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Court, Trump’s and Biden’s records, the economy, the integrity of the election and “race and violence in our cities.”

But the candidates have already indicated what they want to talk about. Biden has so far sought to make the presidential election a referendum on Trump’s handling of the pandemic, casting him as a failed leader in the face of a global crisis even as other flash points, such as the vacancy on the Supreme Court, enter the fold.

Trump, meanwhile, has been less focused in his appeals to voters, jumping between different arguments throughout the campaign. But Tuesday’s debate could give him the opportunity to seize on one of those arguments — the pre-pandemic economy, for instance, or his accusation that Biden has drifted too far to the left. 

How personal does it get?

Tuesday’s debate has the potential to be among the most personal in modern history. Both candidates have already shown a willingness to go after not only each other’s records, but also their character as well, and Trump in particular has a penchant for shattering the boundaries that have traditionally governed political debates.

Trump and his allies have already sought to attack Biden over his son Hunter’s business dealings abroad. And the president has routinely and misleadingly denigrated Biden over his mental health and stamina.

Biden, meanwhile, has focused much of his campaign on Trump’s character, casting the 2020 election as a battle for the “soul” of America. Expect that line of attack to come through Tuesday.

A bombshell New York Times report revealing that Trump paid just $750 in federal income tax in both 2016 and 2017 and used questionable tactics to lower his tax bill could also provide fodder for Biden at the debate, allowing him to hammer Trump’s personal finances on top of his performance in the White House.

How does Chris Wallace handle the candidates?

Wallace won praise for his role moderating the third debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, and he’s shown a willingness to challenge both of the current candidates in interviews. While the spotlight will be on Trump and Biden on Tuesday night, Wallace is also sure to face scrutiny of his own for how he handles the showdown.

Some Democrats are skeptical of Wallace’s ability to moderate a fair debate, pointing to his selection of the topic “race and violence in our cities.” Critics argue that the topic is framed in a way that plays into one of Trump’s central campaign arguments, rather than facilitating a discussion on racial injustice and police brutality.

There are also questions as to how aggressive Wallace will be in pushing back against false or misleading statements. The Fox News anchor has argued in the past that it’s not the job of moderators to fact-check debates. And on Sunday, he offered a hint as to how he will approach Tuesday’s debate.

“My job is to be as invisible as possible,” Wallace said on Fox News.

Will the candidates keep control of their tempers?

Both Trump and Biden have shown a tendency at times to lose their tempers when confronted over their records, and Tuesday is shaping up to be a test of their nerves.

Trump, in particular, is likely to try to throw Biden off balance in an effort to bolster his argument that the former vice president lacks the acuity to lead the country. If Biden can keep his cool, however, it may help him counter Trump’s repeated efforts to raise questions about his mental health.

But there are also risks for Trump, who often responds furiously when questioned on his record, both as a businessman and in the White House. He’s already trailing Biden in most public polls, and an angry outburst on the debate stage will likely only bolster Biden’s central argument that Trump is unfit for the office he holds.

What do they do to appeal to women?

Biden is heading into the debate with broad support among female voters, including some who helped elect Trump in 2016, and he’ll need to keep that support high to win the White House in November.

The Supreme Court battle could provide Biden the opportunity to consolidate moderate and left-leaning female voters by bringing up the threat a 6-3 conservative majority on the court would pose to Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that cleared the way for abortion rights nationwide.

Meanwhile, Trump may look to his law-and-order message in an effort to appeal to suburban women who have abandoned the Republican Party in droves since 2016. That argument was a core part of his messaging during the Republican National Convention last month, though it’s unclear whether it’s enough to close his yawning gap with Biden among those voters.

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