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Biden vs Trump: No more waiting, it's presidential debate time

Eight years ago, Americans who tuned in to the second presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton witnessed one of the most memorable debate exchanges in modern political history.

“If I win,” Trump told his opponent onstage, “I’m going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there’s never been so many lies, so much deception.” An aghast Clinton sought to cast Trump’s remark as a testament of his character and his inability to control his impulses. “It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” she responded. In a now-famous quip, Trump shot back, “Because you’d be in jail.”

The exchange drew applause from the audience but was panned by pundits at the time as evidence of Trump’s allegedly dictatorial aspirations — a time-capsule moment that perfectly depicted the disconnect between the chattering class and the swing voters who helped vault Trump to victory in 2016.

Things have changed quite a bit since then. Tonight in Atlanta, Trump’s challenge is to convince voters that it is time to retire the man who defeated him four years ago — a loss he has yet to concede. The task of the presumptive GOP nominee is to dispel concerns about his temperament and present himself as a preferable alternative to Joe Biden on matters of policy, namely by triggering memories of the lower prices that Americans experienced under Trump’s administration and by blaming his opponent for the spike in illegal border crossings that have occurred under Biden’s watch.

For the first time since 2020, Trump will face off against Biden, whose approval ratings have remained underwater since his administration’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. The stakes are high for the incumbent, who rarely gives lengthy speeches or press conferences and who has spent most of his presidency avoiding sit-downs with tough interviewers. Polls suggest that Biden’s coalition is fraying as voters continue to disapprove of his record and have deep-seated concerns about his age. To deflect from these political weaknesses, Biden will probably spend much of the debate trying to skewer Trump’s character and bait him into contentious exchanges over his refusal to concede the 2020 election and his behavior leading up to the U.S. Capitol protests in January 2021.

Biden is also expected to push the abortion issue to the forefront of the electoral debate, hammering Trump for taking credit for overturning Roe v. Wade. And while Biden has largely avoided talking about Trump’s Manhattan trials, it’s entirely possible he will come ready to hurl the “convicted felon” label at Trump, as his campaign has done recently in ads and on social media.

As always, Americans will judge both candidates on whether they can cast the other as unfit for the presidency while keeping their cool — no easy task for two men whose visceral and mutual hatred is evident through the TV screen.

Voters got a taste of this Trump-versus-Biden dynamic four years ago. Trump was notably combative during their first onstage encounter in September 2020, interrupting Biden often, to the point where Biden at one point interjected, “Will you shut up, man?” Biden threw punches too, calling Trump “the worst president that America has ever had,” and he said more people would die from Covid if Trump did not get “a lot smarter, a lot quicker.” This prompted Trump to insult Biden’s intelligence: “He graduated the lowest or almost the lowest in your class. Don’t ever use the word ‘smart’ with me.”

This time around, CNN has pledged to prevent interruptions by muting candidates’ mics when they aren’t speaking. There is no audience — a strike against Trump, who famously knows how to charm the crowd — and the candidates will spar onstage for 90 minutes.

As part of their expectations-setting strategy, Biden and his aides have also spent recent days raising the bar for Biden by reminding voters that Biden has a half-century of political experience under his belt. Unlike Trump, who has held lengthy informal policy discussions on podcasts in lieu of traditional debate prep, Biden has spent the past week away from the White House, privately undergoing intensive debate prep at Camp David with more than a dozen political advisers.

“Joe Biden has been doing this successfully for 50 years,” Trump adviser Jason Miller told reporters on a press call Tuesday afternoon. “After taking an entire week off, he’s going to be ready for this.”

Trump has accused Biden of taking performance-enhancing drugs and has publicly urged his opponent — as he did in 2020 and in 2016 against Clinton — to take a drug test before the debate, a talking point that’s making its way onto Capitol Hill. “President Trump has volunteered to do so, I think President Biden also should do so,” representative Derrik Van Orden (R., Wis.) said  in an interview with NRO Wednesday afternoon. “He is the guy who has his finger on the button that can destroy Earth in a millisecond. And he has to take a full week sequester to Camp David to prepare for an hour and a half debate? That’s deeply troubling.”

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