What to Know About Tuesday’s Debate Between President Trump and Joe Biden

Democratic U.S. presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden, left, is set to debate President Trump in Cleveland on Tuesday.

Photo: Mark Makela/Reuters|, SHAWN THEW/EPA/Sutterstock

President Trump’s unconventional political instincts will compete with Joe Biden’s more traditional debate preparations Tuesday night, as the candidates meet each other for the first time on stage.

The candidates will face off in Cleveland as polls show Mr. Biden leading in several key states and early voting already under way in parts of the country. In an election year that has been roiled by the pandemic, the three scheduled debates between the candidates will be a rare standard event, with the candidates making their final pitches to voters.

“Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace will serve as the moderator and recently set the topics: the candidates’ records, the Supreme Court, the pandemic, the economy, race and violence in cities and the integrity of the election.

The debate is scheduled to start at 9 p.m. ET and run for 90 minutes. It will be shown live on channels including ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and C-Span, or can be streamed live on WSJ.com and YouTube.

Arguments over the Supreme Court nomination

The debate will take place days after President Trump named Judge Amy Coney Barrett to be his nominee for the Supreme Court, setting off what is likely to be a heated nomination battle in the final stretch before the election. Mr. Trump has urged Senate Republicans to confirm his nominee before the election.

The candidates’ arguments on the nominee and whether Republicans should even be taking up the nomination could play a role in motivating their bases.


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Mr. Biden has said the winner of the 2020 election should be the one filling the seat because Senate Republicans didn’t take up Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016. Over objections from Democrats, Republicans said at the time they didn’t want to fill the position in an election year. They say that this year is different because the same party controls the White House and the Senate.

The former vice president has said he would nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court if he is elected and a vacancy arises, but he hasn’t put out a list of names, as Mr. Trump has. He also has declined to comment on whether he would expand the number of justices on the court, as some progressives have pushed the idea.

Trump’s pitch for a second term

In town halls, interviews and campaign rallies, Mr. Trump has yet to put forward a detailed vision for the next four years if he is re-elected. Instead he has focused on portraying Mr. Biden as a socialist and touting his first term. Asked about his agenda in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in June, Mr. Trump pointed more to his first term than ahead though he did say he would focus on the economy. With early voting already under way, the debate would serve as an opportunity for him to more clearly lay out his plans.

Mr. Biden frequently gives policy addresses on his plans to deal with the pandemic, the economy and reopening of schools. Overall, he has repeatedly pitched his presidency as one that could heal and unite the country in the aftermath of a pandemic and racial unrest.

Trump, Biden questioning each other’s fitness

Mr. Trump has devoted the bulk of his criticism of Mr. Biden to his fitness for office, frequently questioning his mental acuity in tweets and rallies. It will likely be a line of attack Tuesday.

The president has gone as far as to suggest that Mr. Biden would need performance-enhancing drugs for the debate.

Mr. Biden has brushed off the claims as “foolish” and hit Mr. Trump’s fitness. “This president talks about cognitive capability,” he said during a news conference. “He doesn’t appear to be cognitively aware of what’s going on.”

Mr. Trump, now 74 years old, was the oldest president when he was inaugurated four years ago. Mr. Biden would be 78 at his inauguration if he is elected.

Trump’s unpredictable debate style, Biden’s response

Mr. Trump has dramatically changed presidential political debates, making the attacks more personal and aimed at rattling his opponents. In 2016, shortly before one of his debates with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump held a media event with women who have accused her husband, former President Bill Clinton, of sexual misconduct. During the same debate, Mr. Trump followed Mrs. Clinton around the stage as she answered questions.

Voters in the Democratic primary repeatedly brought up Mr. Trump’s unpredictable nature in the 2016 debates and said they wanted a nominee who would be able to go toe to toe with Mr. Trump. The first debate will serve as Mr. Biden’s chance to show that he won’t let Mr. Trump rattle him and instead stay focused on drawing a contrast with his more unity-focused message.

The moderator’s role

Mr. Biden has said he would try to fact-check Mr. Trump in real time during the debate, which could be tough for the former vice president as he also tries to use the time to pitch his own vision for the country.

Mr. Wallace, the moderator, could step into that role, as he did in a recent interview with Mr. Trump.

The president already has attacked Mr. Wallace ahead of the debate, predicting he won’t be treated fairly. “Chris is good, but I would be willing to bet that he won’t ask Biden tough questions,” he said in a Fox News Radio interview. He will ask tough questions of me and it will be unfair, I have no doubt about it. He will be controlled by the radical left.”

Write to Tarini Parti at Tarini.Parti@wsj.com

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