WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and his campaign have spent nearly a year lowering the bar on Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s debating performance – and have tried for the past few weeks to reverse that narrative.
In the days of Tuesday’s first debate – one of Trump’s last chances to shift the dynamics of the race in his favor – aides and advisers have sought publicly and privately to create the conditions for debate between a president who has done relatively little has to prepare and be a skilled debater with decades of experience.
Last week, Murtaugh had a different assessment of Biden’s communication skills. “Biden debated skillfully in the Senate for decades, won two debates when running for vice president, and just got through eleven debates in Democratic primary where he defeated two dozen challengers,” he said. “Joe Biden is a debater who knows what he’s doing.”
It’s a far cry from the picture Trumpworld has repeatedly painted of Biden, who, according to the president, belongs in a nursing home, cannot speak without a teleprompter, and would fail a cognition test to diagnose dementia. But despite late efforts to recruit Biden as debater master, Trump and his campaign have set the bar exceptionally low for many voters, veterans of preparing for the presidential debate said.
“The only way Trump will triumph is when it’s a disaster for Biden, and by that I mean a moment or moments when the challenger appears incoherent or awkward and therefore unable to take over the presidency “said Mark McKinnon. who prepared George W. Bush for his debates and Sarah Palin for her vice-presidential debate against Biden in 2008.
Trump advisors admitted in the summer that attacks on Biden’s ingenuity risked lowering the bar for Biden’s debate time, but the president insisted as the strategy became intertwined with another of his key messages: that Biden was a tool of the Biden had become the far left wing of the Democratic Party because of a deterioration in his mental state.
Some Trump surrogate mothers tried to raise expectations of Biden’s debate performance, but their message was confused and contradicted by the president, who continues to claim without evidence that Biden cannot speak without the help of his aides and is on performance-enhancing drugs.
“I have no idea how he’s going to be. He’s always different when he comes out because he’s taking a different drug, I think. But he’s always very different when he comes out,” Trump told reporters on Saturday.
Little over the past year has done much to change the dynamics of the race, but debates have traditionally been viewed as moments that can change the dynamics. Even if Trump could only gain ground marginally, that could be enough in several major battlefield states where he is only a few points from Biden, such as Florida and North Carolina.
The first debate is usually the most watched – 84 million viewers tuned in to the first general election game in 2016.
Trump has largely avoided the traditional preparation of debates with a bogus opponent and moderator, opting instead for less formal discussions about Biden’s record on issues such as crime and a comprehensive strategy with policy advisers such as National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow. He’s also had regular conversations with campaign manager Bill Stepien and communications advisor Jason Miller, one of the few people who were still in Trump’s orbit after his 2016 race.
Trump has said he sees his job as preparing for the debate, such as taking questions from reporters and conducting media interviews. But a press conference where Trump commands the stage is very different from sharing the stage with an opponent and a presenter who runs the show, debate veterans said. Both Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012 struggled in their early debates.
“After you’ve been president for a while, you’re not used to being interviewed and you think you know everything,” said McKinnon, who said this was the case at Bush’s first matchup against 2004 opponent John Kerry was.
While Obama and Bush were able to recover from their first debate flops, the voting dynamics this year are different: More than 70 million ballots have already been sent to voters in 39 countries. By the time Trump and Biden face each other again, early personal voting will have begun in California, Georgia, Iowa and Maine.
Trump’s allies have tried to take advantage of his lack of formal debate preparation in hopes of lowering expectations and suggesting that he may underperform not because he is less skilled but because he does not have enough time to prepare has expended.
Trump said his attorney Rudy Giuliani and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie were at the White House to help prepare the debate. Both played the role of Biden.
When asked how much time he spent preparing the debate, Trump said, “A little time, not a lot.”
“I run a country, you know. I don’t have the luxury,” the president told reporters on Sunday shortly after returning from a trip to his Virginia golf course.
One of the best things Trump could do, said Philippe Reines, a senior Clinton adviser from 2016 who played Trump in mock debates with Clinton, is to be more of the debater he was this year – someone who Spent little time defending himself and had a simple, clear line of attack and a targeted message about work and immigration.
But as Biden’s relatively steady polling lead confirms, Trump is struggling to develop an effective line of scrimmage this time around, and he tends to get more lost in his own complaints and self-defense compared to 2016, Reines said.
If he advised Trump this time, Reines said, he would advise him like this: “I’m not going to tell you to apologize. I’m not going to tell you to put an inch on anything. I’ll tell you that you should be consistent. You won the last time because of the pillars you put up and you’re so obsessed with declaring victory that you don’t leave room. “