Biden, Trump both ready attacks for historic debate

TOP TrumpBiden 2020 042623 AP Morry Gash

President Biden and former President Trump will square off Thursday night in the biggest moment of the 2024 campaign to date — the first debate, hosted by CNN in Atlanta.

Details are beginning to seep out about what each candidate will do. 

The short answer? Attack.

Biden is expected to put the spotlight on Trump’s role in appointing the Supreme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v. Wade. 

The president will also hope to hammer home the idea that a second Trump term would pose an existential danger to American democracy. And he will likely characterize the former president as an inherently selfish figure, interested in helping himself and his wealthy donors at the expense of less affluent Americans.

Trump is expected to throw verbal punches at Biden’s record on immigration and inflation — topics that have been consistent vulnerabilities for the president. 

The Trump campaign will be ready to pounce on any moment that underscores voter concerns about Biden’s age and acuity. And Trump aides are laying the groundwork to argue that Trump will be treated unfairly by the CNN moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash.

“The true benchmark for Thursday’s debate should be whether or not Joe Biden can defend his disastrous record on inflation and the out-of-control border invasion versus President Trump’s unquestioned first-term record of success, and if Biden can speak for himself without the overt participation and interference of two CNN moderators,” the Trump campaign’s communications director Steven Cheung told The Hill in an email. 

A senior Biden adviser pledged that the first debate will be a moment where we can break through to a larger audience that has yet to tune in to the presidential election and put a spotlight on the stark contrast between Joe Biden who is fighting for the American people, and Donald Trump who is fighting for himself as a convicted felon with an unhinged campaign of revenge and retribution.”

The stakes could hardly be higher. 

The race is close, but most polls show Trump with a small advantage. The former president leads by 1.6 percentage points in the national polling average maintained by The Hill and Decision Desk HQ (DDHQ).

Among the six battleground states that are likely to decide the election, Trump is ahead in five. The sole exception is Wisconsin, which is effectively a dead heat. The DDHQ polling average shows Biden up by just one-fifth of a percentage point.

The shape of the race — and Biden’s need to bend the polling curve — is widely assumed to be why the president led the way in scheduling such an early debate. 

The history of televised presidential debates stretches back to 1960, but none has been held earlier than September. The first debate between Biden and Trump during the 2020 campaign — an infamously raucous and messy clash — was held on Sept. 29.

A strong performance from Biden on Thursday could help him immeasurably if it eases concerns about his age. The president’s cognitive abilities are mocked daily by conservatives on social media, to the White House’s dismay. But the worries are not confined to Republicans. 

An ABC News/Ipsos poll in February found a startling 86 percent of Americans believed Biden to be too old to serve a second term — a figure that included 73 percent of Democrats. The same ABC poll also showed 62 percent of Americans believing Trump is too old. 

Biden is 81; Trump is 78.

Biden can also at times speak with more vigor than his detractors like to acknowledge. Democrats were buoyed, for example, by the verve with which he delivered the State of the Union address in March.

“The truth is that many of these debates are performative as much as they are substantive,” said Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh. “In Biden’s case, he needs to look vigorous and in command. That’s obviously Goal Number One.”

Conversely, anything resembling a “senior moment” from Biden could be catastrophic. A GOP operative supportive of Trump told The Hill he believed any such moment from Biden on Thursday could effectively end the race.

The president seems well aware of the stakes. He is sequestered with advisers at Camp David and has no public events scheduled before the debate. 

A campaign official said preparation was being spearheaded by Ron Klain, Biden’s former White House chief of staff whose association with the president stretches back to the 1980s.

Trump typically eschews much formal debate preparation. Instead, he appears to be trying out attack lines at rallies and, reportedly, in private.

Last month, he pronounced Biden the “worst debater I have ever faced” and someone who was barely capable of putting “two sentences together.”

Those jabs caused consternation among some Republicans who worried they would enable Biden to claim a moral victory if he merely cleared a very low bar.

At a Saturday rally in Philadelphia, Trump changed his tune, in rather crude terms. Predicting that Biden would “come out all jacked up,” Trump also imagined that “a little before debate time, he gets a shot in the ass.”

Cheung, the Trump campaign spokesperson, criticized the media for lowering expectations for Biden. He told The Hill that the media wants to lower the “debate performance bar” for Biden to the point that he “gets a participation trophy simply for standing upright for 90 minutes.”

Some Republicans hope Trump curbs his behavior from the first 2020 debate, which was widely seen as chaotic and overly negative.

“Trump must focus like a laser beam on Biden’s record,” said GOP strategist Brad Blakeman. “He has to be prepared to talk about the failures of the Biden administration — inflation, immigration and the border.”

Biden will get a chance to defend himself on those topics and more.

But, playing their own expectations game, the president’s advisers are trying to cool the suggestion that a transformative moment awaits.

“This election will be very close — all the way to November,” the senior Biden adviser said. “The June debate is not a moment that we expect to define the trajectory of the election or move poll numbers in the near-term.”

It’s a predication the Biden team would not mind being wrong about.

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