Biden seeks turning point in debate vs. Trump

President Biden and former President Trump will clash on a debate stage Thursday in what will be a pivotal moment in the race for the White House.

Despite low voter enthusiasm, lawmakers and experts are predicting that Americans will tune into Thursday’s debate in droves. Whoever puts on the better performance could seize a huge victory as the race moves to the final stretch.

Both candidates face serious questions from voters about their fitness for office, from issues related to age and temperament. Biden, who is behind in swing-state polls to Trump, in particular needs a game-changing moment.

“I think it’s going to be really important,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said.

“We’ve seen this with other candidates, and if you don’t handle a question correctly or if you misspeak,” she said. “Your answers are pretty consequential, so this is pretty high stakes.”

Biden and Trump both officially met the requirements to qualify for the debate Thursday. Independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. failed to qualify, making the first debate a true repeat of the 2020 presidential debates.

Biden, 81, and Trump, 78, go into the debate with polls largely showing them neck and neck, highlighting the significance of the moment.

Tevi Troy, a presidential historian at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said that Americans, despite low enthusiasm, will tune in to judge the mental fitness of the candidates.

“Even if people are unenthusiastic about candidates, they want to see if there’s a meltdown on stage. And there could be two types of meltdown. Trump could have an anger meltdown, and Biden could have an age meltdown,” he said.

Thursday’s presidential debate will be the first one since 1984 not hosted by the Commission on Presidential Debates. And prior to this year, no televised general election debate had been held before late September dating back to their creation in 1960, putting Thursday’s meeting truly in foreign territory and leaving people to wonder what it means for the Biden-Trump rematch.

“That’s an unknown,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), adding that early voting has forced debates to move earlier in the calendar. He noted that Virginia holds a gubernatorial and Senate debate in July, months ahead of when early voting kicks off in mid-September.

“Having debates in October doesn’t make much sense,” Kaine added. “Just to accommodate the states that do early vote, the calendar does need to move earlier.”

Others note the interest also comes from the fact that there’s only two debates — next week’s and another in September. There is also expected to be a vice presidential debate held, but the importance of those is usually diminished in comparison with the top-of-the-ticket events.

“Given that there’s only two, and just given the discussion and talk about the preparedness of both candidates, I think people are looking to see Biden perform, looking to see how crazy Trump will be. So I do think there’s going to be a lot of interest in the debates,” said former Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.).

Biden goes into the debate under pressure to get a much-needed boost in polling after he has not been able to gain much ground on Trump, even after the former president’s conviction in a New York hush money trial. Trump holds a narrow lead in key swing states in the wake of the verdict, a new poll from Emerson College Polling/The Hill found, and the former president is polling 0.6 percentage points ahead of Biden, according to an aggregation of polls from Decision Desk HQ/The Hill.

The debate is Biden’s to lose and could determine the whole election, argued CNN’s Van Jones on Thursday.

“This is the entire election as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “Because, if Biden goes out there and messes up, it’s game over. If he walks out there and a week later he’s lower in the polls, it’s panic in the party. But if he goes in there and he can handle himself against Donald Trump, a runaway train, a locomotive, a raging bull, then this guy deserves another shot to be president, because that is tough.”

There are mixed opinions about the amount of Americans who will tune in, with some like Capito predicting a “huge audience” that may rival the first meeting between Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Others, like Troy, argue that the numbers could be low compared to other debates because of the other ways Americans can access parts of the debates, such as through TikTok or the social platform X.

“Now, if there’s a great moment, there’s a gaffe, there’s a meltdown, everyone’s going to watch it via social media even if they didn’t watch it live,” Troy said. “I think the reach is greater even if the viewership isn’t.”

The importance of debates in terms of changing voters’ thinking is an unsettled argument in political circles, with experts noting that some debates became a major part of history while others ended up being a blip in the overall election cycle.

“There’s a general question of how often the debates have actually mattered. There are structural elements to a race that determine what’s going to happen in the race, and do the debates really shift things?” Troy said.

He noted that Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) had a great first debate against former President Obama in 2012, but ended up losing that race. On the other hand, there are other times when debates have mattered, including in 1984, when former President Reagan famously said that he wouldn’t “exploit” former Vice President Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience.”

Nevertheless, Thursday’s debate still marks the first major moment of the campaign as it arrives ahead of both national conventions.

“It’s big,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told The Hill. “I’m glad to see it. We know who the candidates are going to be. Why not let them bang heads. I’m all in favor of it. I think it’s good. Let’s get it out there, let them talk to each other.”

Warren argued that the early event will be beneficial for Biden’s bid for a second term as it will give “everyone … a chance to see up close and personal Donald Trump being Donald Trump.”

“I think that will be the single biggest issue in the upcoming [election],” she said.

“Remind everybody again exactly who these two people are,” she continued. “If that’s what comes through in this debate, exactly who they are at their core, then I’m feeling pretty good about this.”

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