Who would have thought it would be Hillary Clinton looking to the debates to revive a sputtering campaign?
With her summer lead having vanished, Clinton is now dealing with the fallout from two issues that have the potential to torment her until Election Day: the state of her health and a resurgence of radical Islamist attacks against US citizens on American soil. There may be nothing she can do about the former. The video of her nearly fainting outside the 9/11 memorial in New York is seared into the collective consciousness of the nation.
As for the eruption of violence, Clinton is saddled with the unhappy task of defending President Obama's ineffective war against the Islamic State while also trying to convince the public she's tough on terror. Adding to her burden is the stereotype of weakness imputed to all Democrats, reinforced when Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York insists on describing as "intentional acts" what other, more sensible people see as religious extremism.
The Democratic nominee needs the debates — the first is on Monday, two more follow in October — to challenge the view of Clinton as weak, both physically and politically.
Unfortunately, Clinton has made it harder for herself in that first debate against GOP rival Donald Trump because of the exceedingly low expectations she set for him — partly due to headlines like one that ran in Politico earlier this month: "Clinton's advisers tell her to prep for a landslide." Overestimating Clinton's capabilities to such an extent suggests that her team has lost touch with reality.
What's more, by constantly referring to Trump as "dangerous" and "reckless," with no self-discipline or self-control, Clinton has lowered the bar even further.
We saw how low expectations worked in Trump's favor in his pseudo-diplomatic visit to Mexico City. If Trump refrains from boisterous insults and merely looks the part of a president, as he did in Mexico, then he'll be rewarded with positive reviews for having exceeded the rock-bottom assumptions deduced from Clinton's name-calling.
In Clinton's favor, however, is the fact of her superior debating skill, honed over a long electoral career. She especially knows how to handle herself against a single opponent for 90 minutes on stage. That is not the case with Trump, whose sketchy knowledge of world affairs was concealed by his limited talk time in the crowded Republican primary debates.
Clinton is also helped by Gary Johnson's exclusion. The libertarian candidate has cut into Clinton's lead with younger voters, but he failed to reach the requisite 15 percent in public polling. Johnson may yet make it into the second or third debate, depending on future polling, but for now he's been denied a national TV audience.
Naturally, both sides are trying to "work the refs." Critics on the left are pressing the moderators to challenge Trump forcefully. They scornfully attacked Matt Lauer for not being more aggressive against Trump in a recent NBC forum. Trump complains the debates are rigged and that he expects "unfair" treatment.
Mike McCurry, the cochairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates and former press secretary for Bill Clinton, has a pretty good job description for the moderator — "to get out of the way." The best moderators will present the candidates with opportunities to challenge and fact-check each other, not become the story.
One thing is clear: The national mood has not changed from what we saw in the primaries. Populism is still burning on the left and the right. Health concerns and a return to terror only add to Clinton's problems. Another obstacle between Clinton and the White House would result if Trump were judged her equal in the debates.
Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst and media strategist, and was a senior adviser to Governor Mitt Romney.