WASHINGTON — Pick your plot line: It’s the class cut-up versus the teacher’s pet. It’s the (fabulously wealthy) outsider against a calculating (and pretty wealthy) creature of the Washington establishment. It’s the first woman at the top of a national ticket — who says what she thinks, but more rarely what she feels — tangling with a blusterous businessman with a track record of insulting women and just about anyone in his way.
It’s a showdown, in short, of the least popular pair of presidential contenders in modern memory. And all that’s at stake is the future of the free world.
The first presidential debate Monday may very well live up to the hype, even for a nation hooked on reality television. It’s 90 minutes. It’s live. And, by the way, there are no breaks.
In a nation where the split between Democrats and Republicans seems wider than ever, the face-off between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is taking on Super Bowl dimensions, with many predicting a viewership to match. Hofstra University on Long Island hosts the event, which starts at 9 p.m.
A review of the grueling series of party primary debates featuring both Trump and Clinton, and conversations with strategists who’ve prepared the candidates, sheds light on the actual strengths and weaknesses each of them carries into this larger-than-life matchup.
Clinton brings the spotlight of history with her.
Never before has a woman stood on a presidential debate stage. Adjectives commonly used to describe her debating skills are “formidable,” “skilled,” and “prepared.” But while she somersaults through policy questions with the ease of an Olympic gymnast, she is known to wobble on the political and ethical queries.
Donald Trump brings the unpredictability of a world-class showman.
He’s a highly combustible candidate with a knack for entertainment and coarse but relatable language. He can either please or shock a crowd. This is the guy who’d never run for anything before but vanquished 16 GOP primary opponents and also got away with discussing the size of his manhood from a debate stage.
But he’s never sparred with anyone one-on-one. During the Republican primary debates, he would at times go long stretches without speaking. During the 11 debates he participated in, his opponents soaked up 75 percent of the time, according to an analysis by the Globe.
“An hour and a half with Donald Trump, without a script, is akin to a man on a high wire, on a chair, with a poodle, and the wind blowing,” John Weaver, a longtime Republican consultant who was John Kasich’s top strategist. “He may make it across. But it’ll be interesting.”
Both candidates are widely disliked by the American public, and the debates could provide one of the biggest turning points in an election that has tightened into a dead heat in many national and state-based polls.
The flip side is both could — and strategists say should — seize the opportunity to showcase their likable and optimistic sides.
“Look at the polls. You got one guy with 28 approval, which is what Nixon was when he resigned, the other with 35,” Weaver said. “Someone might be able to move the needle by being a bit aspirational.”
The moments when Trump was knocked most off-kilter during the primary debates were when he was facing off against women. Carly Fiorina delivered sharp attack lines that Trump struggled to handle.
His criticism of Megyn Kelly, the Fox News host and co-moderator of the first debate, set off an explosion of criticism that left an indelible imprint and helped earn him the dismal poll numbers among women from which he still suffers.
The few undecided voters watching the debates won’t take kindly to behavior that comes off as sexist.
“No one likes a visual of a man bullying a woman or being overly condescending,” observed Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist who helped former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley prepare for debates against Clinton.
One of Trump’s key strengths, built from his experience as reality show entertainer, plays well into how Americans absorb and remember debates: That is by “moments” which stand out and are therefore replayed on TV, rather than a long and steady performance that’s harder to boil down and convey.
“He is thinking about individual episodes and back-and-forth moments with his opponents,” said Brett O’Donnell, a veteran Republican consultant who has been involved in debate preparations for George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.
“I don’t think he thinks in terms of overall messaging across the debates. And I don’t think he thinks big picture.”
That also can be a danger zone for opponents. Trump lives in the moment, O’Donnell said, and can suck his opponent into it.
“He’s very good at branding and delivering those knockout punches,” he said. “That hurt the people that tried to debate him on his ground.”
Clinton walks on to the debate stage with a plan and can execute it nearly flawlessly, according to those who’ve prepared candidates to challenge her. Her gift: the ability to encapsulate a message — or an attack — in the 60-second or the 90-second time frame permitted for answers on the debate stage.
“She is experienced at delivering a message through the prism of a debate,” said Bernie Sanders adviser Tad Devine, whose candidate debated Clinton nine times during the Democratic nominating contest.
On the topic of gun control, which polling showed was important to the Democratic primary electorate, Clinton skillfully scored points against Sanders by repeating her attacks over and over, and in such great detail, that it was difficult for the Vermont senator to find his footing.
She offered one 79-second response where she uttered the word “gun” seven times and referenced five different instances where Sanders voted to weaken gun control laws.
“He has voted with the N.R.A., with the gun lobby numerous times. He voted against the Brady bill five times. He voted for what we call the Charleston loophole,” Clinton thundered in South Carolina, on a stage just a block away from a church where a gunman had murdered nine people months before.
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, discovered one key area where Clinton seemed invincible.
“She masters the details of policies,” Weaver said. “She knows the fine details of all of her plans. That is not an area where you can score points with Hillary Clinton.”
Instead, he said, she has a harder time with questions that are more politically focused. Sanders’ team made headway against Clinton when the Vermont senator began demanding that Clinton release the transcripts of the paid speeches she made to Wall Street banks.
Others working for her primary opponents noticed it too.
“Any time her e-mails or personal ethics came up, that’s where she would get really uncomfortable,” said Smith, the Democratic consultant.
The advice for Clinton about Trump is to avoid falling into his traps.
“I think the biggest thing in preparing for him is you can’t fall prey to his tactics. People who have, have done very poorly,” said O’Donnell, the Republican veteran.
There’s very little historic precedent for the matchup.
Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University’s school of journalism and the author of “Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail,” said that only two debates offer much guidance about what to expect Monday.
There was the clash between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden in the 2008 election cycle. The two were the bottom-of-the-ticket picks, but Palin’s approach to her candidacy was somewhat similar to Trump’s: freewheeling and anti-establishment. And the debate drew bigger television audiences than the presidential ones, he said.
“It was the train-wreck element,” Schroeder reasoned, noting that Palin had sat for a series of disastrous interviews just prior to the debate. “There was that same sense that she’s not following the usual script.”
Also, he noted, iconoclastic businessman Ross Perot stood on the debate stage in 1993 as a third party candidate. Perot, he said, won that first debate by beating expectations.
Perot, who had large ears, would sprinkle his responses with self-effacing jokes that played well: “I’m all ears,” he said at one point and then paused for the audience to laugh.
Such self-deprecation is rarely, if ever, displayed by the 2016 candidates, who show almost no humor of any kind on the stump.
The campaign has instead been a slog of negativity, with Trump suggesting that Clinton should be jailed, that her computers be hacked by foreign powers, and even that she should be left unprotected by her Secret Service detail.
Clinton hasn’t gone so far — though she did refer to a portion of Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables” — but she relishes saying that Trump’s antics make him unqualified to hold the highest office in the land and render him unfit to be commander-in-chief.
The ease with which these two insult each other, and their clear pent-up desire to do so in person, is likely to make for one of the most riveting and possibly ugly spectacles in American politics.
“I do think it’s going to be the most watched TV event in American history,” said former New Hampshire governor Judd Gregg, a Republican. “And I do think there will be a clear winner.”