Here’s what’s at stake for Biden and Trump in this week’s presidential debate

Here’s what’s at stake for Biden and Trump in this week’s presidential debate
Here’s what’s at stake for Biden and Trump in this week’s presidential debate

Rarely has one candidate in a presidential debate had so much material to use against the other.

Republican Donald Trump has been convicted of 34 felonies with serious charges in three other indictments still pending. As president, Trump nominated three of the judges who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade and erode access to abortion in America, creating a backlash even in conservative-led states. And his broad plans for a second term include promises of retribution against political enemies in both major political parties.

However, the big question for President Joe Biden, fair or not, is whether he can make the case against Trump. Perhaps nothing matters more than the level of energy and strength that the Democratic incumbent projects on stage.

Both men have obvious flaws that present their opponent with tremendous opportunity and risk. They will face a huge national audience that will include many people tuning in to their 2020 rematch for the first time and who won’t see another debate until September, magnifying every success or mistake.

Biden and Trump will face off Thursday at 9 p.m. ET for 90 minutes inside a CNN studio in Atlanta.

Here are some key questions we will be watching:

Can Biden deliver?

Biden’s seemingly low expectation of success has been created, at least in part, by Trump and his Republican allies, who have relentlessly ridiculed the Democratic president for years for apparent age-related missteps. Trump allies have questioned whether the 81-year-old Biden can even stay awake and on his feet for the full 90 minutes, even as Trump, 78, has had his own gaffes in his speeches at rallies. Trump defended himself Saturday about a moment during the Republican primaries when he apparently confused former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He told a crowd Saturday that liberals had misinterpreted what he called a moment of “pure genius.”

Democrats are hopeful that Biden can bring the same energy he showed in his State of the Union address earlier in the year. But a live television showdown against an opponent who revels in verbal combat is very different from a written speech before Congress.

Biden’s team is aware that it cannot afford to have a bad night with the nation watching.

Can Trump moderate himself?

Having already secured his base, Trump has a chance with the undecided and moderate voters who fueled Biden’s victory four years ago and who now express concerns about both candidates.

But to win over so-called “hateful doubles,” Trump can’t simply rely on the sensational talking points, personal insults and conspiracy theories that typically dominate his public appearances. Instead of more talk of retribution or lies about the US electoral system, he will need to offer an optimistic vision for the future and a clear contrast to Biden on the most talked about issues like healthcare and education.

He was widely criticized for his outbursts in the first 2020 debate with Biden, harassing the then-Democratic candidate and repeatedly interrupting him. His second debate had a softer tone and focused on his markedly different visions of government.

Can he stay disciplined Thursday night? Some allies are hopeful. History may suggest otherwise.

Navigating criminal records

Trump’s extraordinary legal record creates opportunities and risks for both candidates on stage.

Biden’s campaign has signaled a growing willingness to lean into Trump’s criminal record in recent days. But aside from a few low blows, Biden has mostly distanced himself from the accusations of Trump to avoid the appearance of political interference.

Trump, who has been claiming for years without evidence that Biden is responsible for prosecuting him, will not make it easy for the president to maintain that line.

Recent polls show that about half of adults in the U.S. approve of Trump’s conviction in New York. And if voters don’t find specific convictions problematic, Trump’s attempt to conceal an alleged affair with a porn actress is hardly slogan material.

Meanwhile, Biden is aware that Trump may go after his son, Hunter, as the then-president did on the debate stage four years ago. Hunter Biden was recently convicted of three felony charges related to purchasing a gun while allegedly addicted to drugs. Trump has also raised questions about Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings when his father was vice president.

Muted microphones and moderators

As is often the case, the moderators and the rules of the game will likely determine the outcome of the debate. And the rules for this debate, the first of two scheduled meetings, are unusual.

It is worth mentioning that the candidates are bypassing the traditional structure determined by the Commission on Presidential Debates and instead relying on a mutually agreed upon set of rules and conditions.

Biden and Trump will debate in a CNN studio in Atlanta without an audience. There will be no opening statements. Each candidate’s microphone will be muted, except when it is their turn to speak. No props or prescribed notes will be permitted on stage. Candidates will only be given a pen, a pad of paper and a bottle of water.

A coin toss determined that Trump would give the final closing statement.

The event will be moderated by CNN’s Dana Bash and Jake Tapper, two highly respected hosts who have not hesitated to call out Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories.

Although Bash and Tapper have also led critical coverage of Biden at times, Biden’s team no doubt expects them to play an active role in pushing back on Trump’s potential falsehoods in real time. For example, while Biden’s microphone will be muted when Trump is speaking, the moderators’ microphones will not be.

Abortion versus immigration

While style sometimes matters more than substance on the debate stage, both candidates have serious policy challenges they must address.

For Trump, no issue is more important than abortion. His appointments to the Supreme Court while president allowed the court to overturn Roe v. Wade, triggering an avalanche of abortion restrictions across the country. Trump has repeatedly said that he was proud of his role in overturning Roe. And Biden will be eager to highlight Trump’s role.

Trump, of course, has said he would not support a national abortion ban if he is re-elected. But given his history with Roe, he may have more work to do if he hopes to convince women that he can be trusted on a key health care issue.

Biden’s biggest political responsibility, meanwhile, may be immigration. The Democrat’s administration has fought to limit the number of immigrants entering the country at the US-Mexico border. His allies privately recognize that the problem is a major political liability looming next fall.

Trump loves nothing more than highlighting illegal immigration, so expect him to attack Biden on the issue.

At the same time, Biden will face difficult questions about his leadership in the war between Israel and Hamas. The president has alienated some potential supporters on both sides given his staunch support for, and occasional criticism of, Israel.

He will have a great opportunity to defend his record on the complicated issue Thursday night. It will not be easy.

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