Trump, Biden square off tonight in first presidential debate: Five things to watch for

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University of Michigan director of Debate and editor of the book, “Debating the Donald”, Aaron Kall, talks about what to look for in the upcoming presidential debates. Detroit Free Press

President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden will meet at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland at 9 tonight for their first debate, and attention will be squarely focused on Biden, the former vice president.

With an apparent lead in the polls both nationally and in most battleground states, including Michigan, the question will be whether Biden can solidify or improve on that lead by delivering a solid debate performance.

[ We’ll carry the debate live on Facebook! ‘Like’ the Detroit Free Press pageto get an alert when it starts. ]

There are fewer questions about what to expect from the Republican incumbent, whose performances at debates, on the campaign trail and in news conferences at the White House have shown him to be combative, often interrupting answers and diverting attention, especially by claiming he’s being treated unfairly by what he calls the “fake news” media.

But there are still plenty of issues Trump will have to face, with the U.S. leading the world in deaths from coronavirus, the economy reeling from the pandemic and new controversies — including an effort to rush confirmation of a new conservative Supreme Court nominee before the Nov. 3 election and revelations from the New York Times that Trump paid next to nothing in federal taxes and owes hundreds of millions in loans that will come due in the next four years — confronting him.

More: Joe Biden still has big lead on Donald Trump in Michigan — but it’s shrinking, poll shows

Fox News host Chris Wallace, who has shown himself to be a tough questioner of Trump in the past, is moderating this debate, the first of three, with the others being held Oct. 15 in Miami and Oct. 22 in Nashville. Vice President Mike Pence and Biden’s running mate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., will debate Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City.

Here’s five things to keep an eye out for in the debate:

How does Biden react to Trump’s style?

At times during the debates leading up to the Democratic nomination, Biden seemed unsure of himself, overly deferential to the moderators and sometimes answering awkwardly, as if the crowded stage and attacks had thrown him.

He seemed to improve considerably, however, as the nomination narrowed and gave perhaps his best debate performance in March when it was down to just him and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

With decades of experience as a U.S. senator from Delaware and former President Barack Obama’s running mate, Biden is a practiced and seasoned politician who is a veteran of the debate stage. But he has never faced anyone like Trump. Say what you will about the president, he has a unique political style that stands out, clearly enjoys being combative and is quick with a one-liner that put his opponent on the defensive. He seldom feels the need to back up his assertions with facts, forcing his rivals to spend their time correcting him.

It will be interesting to see how Biden, who typically stays above the fray but can also turn and fight when called upon to do so, handles a president who is expected to hurl all kinds of charges at his opponent.

More: Trump makes wild claims about revitalizing auto industry at Michigan rally

Can Trump sow doubts about Biden?

Trump’s reelection campaign has been more about attacking Biden and the Democrats than talking up his own record in office, and there is no reason to believe that won’t continue — and increase — on the debate stage in Cleveland.

Given that he’s trailing in the polls in several swing states, including Michigan, the president’s only chance of winning may be to try to raise enough doubts about the former vice president that some voters stay home or vote for a third party candidate, as many did in 2016 when he defeated Hillary Clinton.

As such, expect Trump to repeat assertions — many of which are false — that the Obama administration spied on his 2016 campaign or that Biden’s son, Hunter, somehow was linked to corruption in Ukraine when there has been no public evidence released supporting that conclusion. Also expect Trump to try to link Biden with sometimes violent clashes in protests over police brutality against people of color, though Biden has denounced such violence and opposes defunding police, and ideas such as a single-government Medicare-for-all health plan; Biden does not support that plan as some other Democrats do.

Trump also has made it clear that he hopes to raise doubts about Biden’s fitness for office at age 77, though at age 74, Trump’s not much younger. Expect the Trump campaign to take any stumble by Biden and try to use it as proof, though it’s worth noting that Biden often corrects himself while trying to give a more detailed answer, where Trump sometimes avoids such answers altogether, changing the subject instead.

How does Trump react to the format?

The president feeds off the energy of crowds, as shown at his recent rally outside Saginaw and his nomination speech delivered before a large live audience at the White House in August. The debate in Cleveland, however, will be held before a limited audience of 70 to 80 people.

Perhaps that will be enough. But it will be worth watching how a president who often rides the mood of an audience does with a smaller-than-usual crowd. Biden, on the other hand, has been rehearsing for this eventuality, giving speeches in smaller, more intimate settings and delivering a nomination speech that hit all his marks but was done without applause.

There is also a question about how Wallace will handle the format — divided into 15-minute segments over the course of 1½ hours — and how tenacious he will be in insisting that the candidates answer follow-up questions when they make false or misleading statements. 

If Wallace refuses to move off a point that either of the candidates tries to make without supporting evidence, it could lead to some interesting moments as the president particularly, in such instances, often becomes argumentative and personally insulting.

Does Biden’s political history make him vulnerable?

Biden has an enormously long political record and Trump’s campaign has effectively used it against him. As a U.S. senator, he did play a key role in the passage of a crime bill in the 1990s that many critics said significantly increased incarceration rates for people of color. He also supported some trade deals — including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the ’90s — that workers in Michigan and other industrial states blamed for sending manufacturing jobs to Mexico.

Trump can legitimately claim success in renegotiating NAFTA and signing a sentencing reform bill, though it’s equally true that Biden supported rewriting the trade deal and reforming sentencing laws as vice president, only to see them blocked, in part, by Republicans in Congress (many of whom later came around when Trump took office).

Still, Biden took those votes and it’s entirely fair for Trump not only to bring them up but for him to take credit for the changes.

Trump may also take a line of attack to suggest that Biden’s past positions on court-ordered school desegregation are at odds with his claiming to be a civil rights advocate. But given that those positions were taken decades ago, in the 1970s, and he went on to to solidify his standing as a fighter for civil rights — and become vice president to the nation’s first Black president and name Harris, a woman of color, to be his own running mate — it may be a tough case to make. Biden has said that his opposition was based more on the U.S. Department of Education-ordering busing and has said he worked to fight against the root causes of segregation. 

How does Biden go on the attack?

Biden may have a long record, but Trump no longer has the luxury of not having one himself, as was the case when he ran against Clinton in 2016. And while an on-again, off-again FBI investigation into her emails as secretary of state roiled that campaign, there is at this point no similar legal controversy involving the former vice president.

Instead, it will be Biden who has the opportunity to go on the attack about Trump’s years in office, his meeting with foreign dictators while squabbling with allies; a tax cut that benefited the wealthiest Americans more than it did lower-wage earners; racist comments he has made, such as telling four women of color in Congress to “go back” to their home countries though all are Americans and three of them were born in the U.S., and his administration’s stated desire to have the Affordable Care Act overturned in court this fall — with no replacement in place — which would result in millions potentially losing their health care.

That is only the start of possible questions, however, as Biden is certain to chastise Trump on an approach to handling the pandemic that still left more than 200,000 Americans dead as, early on, the president publicly downplayed the risk, And despite Trump’s claims to having had the best economy ever, there is evidence it was already slowing down before coronavirus hit.

Expect the back-and-forth on these questions — as well as how Trump responds to the tax issue and claims he faces a $300 million personal loan coming due during what would be his second term in office — to define the night and set the stage for the last five weeks of the campaign.  

But there are likely to be other areas of disagreement as well on topics from climate change, tariffs and whether Trump’s trade war with China has been as good for the country as he claims. Trump, meanwhile, will continue to try to argue that the Obama administration wasn’t as successful — despite clear job gains in the second term that continued through the first three years of Trump’s term — as portrayed. 

TRUMP VS. BIDEN: THE FIRST DEBATE — HOW TO WATCH

The debate is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. and last for 1½ hours without commercial interruption Tuesday at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

C-SPAN, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and the major broadcast networks are expected to carry the debate. Check local listings.

Contact Todd Spangler: tspangler@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @tsspangler. Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter.

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