Fox News veteran moderator Chris Wallace has a ‘tell’ for me on who will win this first presidential debate.

When Chris Wallace moderated the final presidential debate in 2016, the state of the nation and its politics could not have been more different than today. Yet, when Donald Trump faces Joe Biden on Tuesday night, Wallace is likely to begin almost exactly as he did four years ago: “The first topic is the Supreme Court. … I want to drill down on this because … you will in effect determine the balance of the court for what could be the next quarter century.”  

Were it not for the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, what might have been a debate filled with predictable lines we’ve heard before will now start with fireworks. Trump will insist it’s his fiduciary responsibility to fill Ginsburg’s seat immediately. Biden will blast back at the hypocrisy of GOP leaders, who refused to even consider President Barack Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, for eight months before the 2016 presidential election. 

A crash you can’t look away from 

I expect the 90-minute prime-time event to draw one of the largest audiences in the 60-year history of televised presidential debates (2016’s first debate had 84 million viewers). But even with the Supreme Court drama — and the bombshell revelation about Trump’s taxes — the focus will be form, not substance. The main attraction this time will not be policies and promises. As with auto races, many onlookers will be hoping to witness a crash. 

Biden’s supporters want to see Trump cross the line with outrageous attacks. They’ll be waiting for Trump’s exaggerations and outright lies — and hoping that Wallace interrupts to call out the president. 

Trump’s fans have a different focus. They don’t really care what Biden says; they just hope he fumbles and gaffes his way through it. They’ll drink a shot whenever the former vice president loses his place. 

My own scorecard will track a subtle Wallace “tell.” Whenever the veteran Fox News host senses an opening to challenge a male speaker, he invokes the word “sir.” In a one-on-one with Trump this past July, Wallace said “sir” 14 times.

For example, when Trump patted himself on the back for curbing coronavirus deaths, Wallace interrupted with: “But, sir, we have the seventh highest mortality rate in the world.” 

Later Trump said, “Biden wants to defund the police.” Wallace shot back: “No he, sir, he does not.” 

Trump and the election: Ignore the strongman fantasies. If Trump loses the election, he’ll lose his job. Period.

At another tense moment, Wallace said, “But I’ve got to tell you, if I may, sir, respectfully, in the Fox poll, they asked people, who is more competent? Who’s got — whose mind is sounder? Biden beats you in that.” 

In the last 2016 presidential debate, Wallace challenged Trump with “sir” eight times.

Responsibility of moderator

Selecting a moderator has become as contentious as everything else in modern politics. Trump’s campaign suggested 24 journalists — all of whom were rejected by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. 

The moderator is solely responsible for determining the questions, placing an enormous burden on Wallace and moderators in future rounds — Steve Scully of C-SPAN, Oct. 15; Kristen Welker of NBC News, Oct. 22. USA TODAY’s Susan Page will moderate the vice presidential debate Oct. 7. 

Tuesday night’s debate will continue to use a structure established in 2012, with six segments lasting roughly 15 minutes each. The objective is to provide greater depth on the most critical subjects. 

Wallace announced the topics but has not indicated their order: Trump and Biden records; Supreme Court; COVID-19; economy, race and violence in our cities; the integrity of the election.

With Sunday night’s revelation by The New York Times that Trump paid virtually no federal income tax in in 10 of the past 15 years, Wallace will have to retool his topics to fit that in.

If he doesn’t, Biden is sure to bring it up, just as Hillary Clinton did in 2016: “He’s the first candidate ever to run for president in the last 40-plus years who has not released his tax returns. … What is really troubling is that we learned in the last debate he has not paid a penny in federal income tax.” 

Trump responded by claiming he was “entitled” to massive deductions, adding, “I know (Warren) Buffett took hundreds of millions of dollars. Soros, George Soros took hundreds of millions of dollars.” 

Trump, who prides himself on being able to ad-lib on live TV, hasn’t been on a debate stage in four years. He could be rusty and is likely to fall back on the pat (often false) assertions he delivers regularly at campaign rallies. It will be up to Biden and Wallace to politely, but pointedly, issue corrections. 

Medical students: Ask Trump and Biden how they’d fix gross inadequacies of US health care

Biden participated in all 11 Democratic primary debates between June 2019 and March of this year. He didn’t commit any significant gaffes, but he didn’t dominate either. When he goes one-on-one with Trump, he’ll have to resist being arrogant, particularly in the face of nasty attacks. But he’ll need to be forceful. He can’t use his favorite rhetorical crutch when stuck: I apologize, I’ve spoken too long, etc. 

When it’s over, each side will claim victory. Unless there’s an epic failure by one nominee, cable pundits will undoubtedly declare: “It played well for each man’s base, but it didn’t move the needle for undecided voters.”

And who will Chris Wallace conclude is the winner? He’ll never tell. But count up the number of times “sir” is said to each candidate. The man with the fewest wins. 

Peter Funt is a writer and host of “Candid Camera.

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