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Biden has upper hand over Trump in expectations game for debate

Joe Biden speaks in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, on Sept. 21.
Joe Biden speaks in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, on Sept. 21.Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Democrat Joe Biden takes the stage at the first presidential debate of 2020 on Tuesday staring at an opponent, in President Donald Trump, who has unwittingly done him a big favor -- lowered expectations for Biden’s performance.

The president has spent months painting Biden as doddering and senile, a move that may have lowered the bar for Biden’s performance in the eyes of many voters who will be seeing him on stage in Cleveland for the first time since the Democratic convention.

An even passable performance by the former vice president might come off looking like a win in a debate that has taken on outsize importance after Covid-19 limited the candidates’ in-person campaigning.

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“President Trump will definitely try to throw the vice president a bunch of curveballs that are designed to get him off his game,” said Jay Carney, who was Biden’s communications director before becoming White House press secretary under President Barack Obama. “The vice president fully expects and is preparing for that and knows that taking that bait is not what he wants to do.”

But if the gaffe-prone Biden stumbles, or looks even a little like the caricature Trump has painted of him, his campaign may be damaged. There are two more presidential debates to go, but first debates -- like first impressions -- have a way of sticking to candidates.

A good debate performance by Trump at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland could help revive his faltering campaign. He’s trailing Biden by about 7 points nationally, according to an average of polls by RealClearPolitics. Trump, bolstered by his unwavering confidence in his ability to sell himself, has said he’s done little of the traditional preparation for a high-stakes debate. He says his daily back-and-forth with reporters, sometimes two or three times a day, is practice enough.

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“I sort of prepare every day, by just doing what I’m doing,” Trump said in a Fox News interview earlier this month. “I’ve been all over the place, and I watch this guy sitting home, and I think, maybe I’m doing it wrong.”

But first debates are often a trap for incumbent presidents, who have less time for practice than their rivals, or just aren’t as likely to get worked over in debate prep by loyal and sometimes even fawning aides.

Ronald Reagan devastated President Jimmy Carter in 1980 by asking voters if they were better off than they were four years ago. President George W. Bush was criticized for complaining about how hard his job was while debating John Kerry in 2004. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, faced double-barreled attacks from Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot in his first re-election debate in 1992 -- and famously looked at his watch mid-debate. President Barack Obama, one of the Democratic Party’s most gifted orators, was clearly bested in his first debate with Mitt Romney in 2012.

Wall Street will be watching. Trump’s refusal last week to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election reinforced moves by traders to hedge against post-Nov. 3 volatility. Assets ranging from currencies and gold to stocks and interest rates are now reflecting an unusual potential for sharp moves around and after Election Day.

Trump has only resumed his signature campaign rallies in earnest in the last month, staging events at outdoor airplane hangers that hold fewer people than the sports arenas he’s accustomed to filling.

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And Biden has largely eschewed all but small, tightly scripted campaign events in what his aides say is an effort to abide by best social distancing practices during the pandemic. But that’s exposed him to far less of the usual give-and-take with reporters and the public.

Biden, for his part, had fewer campaign events last week, staying home to have aides pepper him with questions and craft responses in person at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, and over video conference call. Longtime advisers Ron Klain and Anita Dunn are leading the effort. Dunn’s husband, Bob Bauer -- who served as White House counsel during the Obama administration -- has played Trump in mock debates, according to a person with knowledge of the debate preparations.

The Biden campaign believes Trump will be eager to lob insults and spread misinformation, presenting a challenge for anyone debating him. That’s particularly acute for Biden because any verbal misstep by the Democratic nominee offers Trump a chance to pounce.

Aides have prepared Biden for Trump’s likely attacks on his family, particularly after Senate Republicans last week released a report critical of the former vice president’s son, Hunter, that detailed millions of dollars in transactions and payments that they said came from Chinese businessmen with ties to the Chinese government as well the widow of the former mayor of Moscow. The report found no wrongdoing by Joe Biden.

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Biden has become angry and defensive on the campaign trail when he senses his family is being attacked, including snapping at an Iowa voter in January who asked about his son’s business dealings.

“I hope I don’t get baited into getting into a brawl with this guy,” Biden said at a fundraiser earlier this month. “It’s going to be hard, because I predict he’s going to be shouting.”

Trump has been honing his attacks through an accelerated campaign schedule over the past week where he often riffs at length about his Democratic challenger.

After the debate, Biden is looking to match some of Trump’s frequency of campaign appearances, embarking on a train tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania, marking his first multi-day swing since March, according to a person familiar with the candidate’s travel plans.

Trump may be doing more preparation than he’s letting on. The president has had a phalanx of campaign aides accompany him on his recent trips around the country, and enlisted former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – who played Hillary Clinton in Trump’s mock debates in 2016 – for additional assistance.

Trump aides have studied Biden’s previous debate performances – including two prior vice presidential debates -- and briefed Trump on how Biden has consistent answers to certain questions he’s honed over decades of time in Washington.

And the Trump campaign has lately changed course on setting expectations, portraying Biden as a veteran debater thanks to a lifetime in politics.

“He was in the Senate for three decades, where all they do is debate,” said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. “He debated twice as vice president and by all accounts he won those debates. During the primaries he was in 11 debates and managed to defeat two dozen challengers. He’s a guy who knows his way around the debate stage.”

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But attempts by Trump’s campaign to raise expectations for Biden have been largely foiled by the president, who keeps up his drumbeat that the 77-year-old former vice president is unable to function without a Teleprompter.

Biden’s team has also played the expectations game, saying that for the vice president, a key challenge will be to absorb the personal diatribes the president is planning to unleash.

Biden allies also acknowledge he at times struggled during the Democratic debates, stumbling over his words or failing to parry attacks, like when Senator Kamala Harris, now his running mate, eviscerated him in a primary-campaign debate for his past stance on busing children to racially integrate schools.

And Biden’s team has tried to coach him not to get too caught up in trying to fact-check Trump, according to a person familiar with the campaign’s thinking. They worry too much time spent debunking Trump will take away from Biden’s opportunity to present his vision for the country. They expect moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News to do the fact-checking so Biden doesn’t have to.

“Debates don’t reward folks who speak in complete sentences and long paragraphs,” Carney said. “They really reward one-liners and insults and zingers.”

Still, the former vice president has made clear he expects to best Trump.

“He doesn’t know how to debate the facts,” Biden told MSNBC in an interview that aired Saturday. “He’s not that smart. He doesn’t know that many facts. He doesn’t know much about foreign policy. He doesn’t know much about domestic policy. He doesn’t know much about the detail.”