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How Trump wins the presidential debate

No need for showmanship. Just contrast Biden’s record with his own.

Donald Trump may be a real estate guy, but his ethic in the first presidential debate should be the familiar rule from the medical profession: First, do no harm.

Trump was rejected by the voters and is getting a second chance — not after turning over a new leaf, not after disappearing on an image-boosting world tour, not after starting a new philanthropy. Trump has simply remained himself, while Biden has made people yearn for the pre-Biden years.

Trump’s goal should be to continue to feed the Trump nostalgia that has been the defining feature of the early stages of the race.

Warren Harding once said, “I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my goddamned friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!”

By the same token, what should worry supporters of Biden and Trump is what they each can do to themselves.

If Biden wanders off, is obviously confused, or repeatedly lapses into mumbly incoherence, it could lose him whatever ground he has made up in the race and perhaps much more.

If Trump, meanwhile, reminds voters of what they disliked about him by November 2020, he risks kicking away the second look he is getting from the American public.

Trump doesn’t need a knockout blow against Biden, assuming one is even possible this early in a campaign involving the tectonic plates of American politics that don’t easily budge based on any one event. A victory by decision, or split decision, would suit his purposes just fine.

Trump is in the rare position of a challenger who doesn’t need to take down the incumbent president. People are ready to fire Biden. The question is whether they are readying to hire the other guy.

Trump doesn’t need to tell voters that Joe Biden is old or that Hunter is a drug addict. He doesn’t need to insult or interrupt him. He needs to keep himself under control because the most important message he can send the public is about himself.

Trump’s persona is the biggest reason that he grabbed Republican politics by the throat and hasn’t let go since 2015. It’s also the reason he has been a precarious electoral bet — narrowly winning in 2016, narrowly losing in 2020, and narrowly leading today.

The Covid briefings that Trump used as a free-floating communications platform in 2020 hurt him, and his first debate performance in 2020 hurt him, too.

The Democrats hope that the public hasn’t truly absorbed that Trump is on the cusp of the presidency again. Presumably, people have gotten the memo by now. But they might not be focused on the japery and provocations with which Trump routinely entertains and energizes his most devoted followers at his rallies, and the Republican would be well-served by leaving all the rally material off the debate stage.

Trump is not going to fade into the background, nor should he. There’s a reason that voters think that he’s more tough, energetic, and effective than Biden. Trump should be forceful in defense of himself and aggressive in prosecuting the substantive case against Biden. But bombast, anger, cross talk, and idle boastfulness will make the debate about Trump, which is exactly what the Biden team wants.

A CBS/YouGov poll from a couple of weeks ago asked Biden supporters why they were with him, and 54 percent said they opposed Trump and only 27 percent because they liked Biden. The incumbent’s job approval is atrocious, and he’s trailing badly on most of the issues. He can only win if people who disapprove of his job performance — and think he’s too old for a second term — vote for him anyway for fear of something worse.

So it’s in Biden’s interest to make the race about Trump, and it’s Trump the showman’s natural instinct to also make the race about him. For one night, at least, he should play against type.

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