President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, meet on the debate stage for the second and final time Thursday night in Tennessee. The 90-minute prime-time meeting comes just 12 days before Election Day.
Some key questions heading into the debate:
CAN TRUMP CHANGE THE TRAJECTORY OF THE RACE?
Trump cannot afford a status quo debate. Several national polls show him losing to Biden, though the race has been tightening. While some battleground state polls are tighter, even some of Trump’s own allies are worrying aloud about the prospect of a serious defeat. This debate represents his best opportunity to change the contours of the race while tens of millions of Americans are watching.
Some critics felt the president fumbled his chance in the opening debate last month, when his attack-all-the-time approach backfired. Trump missed another opportunity when he refused to participate in the second debate after organizers decided the candidates would face each other virtually because of concerns about the president's coronavirus infection. Instead, each man held a solo town hall, Biden's on ABC and Trump's on rival NBC.
WILL THE MUTE BUTTON KEEP THINGS CIVIL?
The mute button has gotten a lot of attention leading up to the debate, but its impact may be overstated.
Given Trump's unrelenting interruptions in the first debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates added a new rule for Thursday's affair that will keep each candidate muted while the other delivers his two-minute remarks at the outset of each of the six debate topics. The remainder of each 15-minute block will be open discussion, without any muting, the commission says.
The change will ensure the candidates have at least some time to answer questions without interference. Ultimately, however, the mute button can only be used for a combined total of 24 minutes of the 90-minute debate. That's plenty of time for the candidates to mix it up.
DOES TRUMP HAVE A BETTER ANSWER FOR THE PANDEMIC?
The president will surely have to talk about the coronavirus at length, taking another stab at convincing persuadable voters that he's got the situation under control.
But it may not be easy.
Coronavirus infections are surging to their highest levels in months. More than 220,000 Americans are dead. And rather than working on a comprehensive plan to stop the spread based on science, Trump has spent recent days attacking the nation's most respected infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, while undermining his own administration's recommendation to wear masks.
In the first debate, Trump pointed to his months-old decision to institute a partial travel ban on China as evidence he was doing a good job. He may need more to assure people beyond his loyal base that he hasn't completely surrendered to the deadliest U.S. health crisis in a century.
HOW WILL BIDEN HANDLE ATTACKS AGAINST HIS SON?
Trump and his allies in the conservative media have ramped up their focus on alleged misconduct, some of it sordid, by Biden’s son Hunter in recent days. The younger Biden has been accused of selling access to his father, the onetime vice president for Barack Obama's two presidential terms, to foreign powers and businesses, with the elder Biden alleged to have taken a substantial cut.
On Newsmax TV on Tuesday, longtime prosecutor, Donald Trump lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said he'd turned over evidence from a laptop purportedly owned and discarded by Hunter Biden. In addition to correspondence on the alleged influence peddling, Giuliani said there were disturbing photos of obviously underage girls, and texts about allegations of improper behavior that the former vice president surely had to know about.
Biden’s team expects Trump to make those allegations a centerpiece of his debate strategy.
The president tried to make an issue in the first debate of Hunter Biden and his drug use, which the younger Biden has publicly acknowledged. But Trump’s attack may have backfired when Biden declared that he was proud of his son, who, like many Americans, has fought to overcome an addiction.
Trump believes he has more ammunition this time around, however, following the publication of a tabloid report offering a bizarre twist to familiar concerns about Hunter Biden’s work overseas. The report centers on data allegedly recovered from that laptop, though the data has not been verified and so far there has been no explicit evidence tying Joe Biden to any corruption.
Biden’s team considers the issue a distraction from much more pressing concerns — namely, the pandemic. Indeed, on Wednesday, Biden derided the allegations and dismissed Giuliani as a Trump "henchman" peddling garbage.
Still, it seems clear that Biden will have to defend himself and his family again on Thursday night.
CAN BIDEN AVOID PLAYING INTO GOP NARRATIVE?
Biden's greatest foe Thursday night may be himself.
Trump has been trying hard to find an effective line of attack against the 77-year-old Democrat, but the lifetime politician has a well-established history of gaffes that has made him the butt of Republican jokes for years.
To that end, the 74-year-old Trump and his allies spent much of the year questioning Biden's mental and physical health. While Biden quieted those questions with a solid performance in the first debate, they have not gone away.
He'll have to avoid any embarrassing missteps on stage that would play into the broader Republican narrative that his faculties have diminished, or that he's ill-equipped to lead the free world.
Biden will certainly be prepared. He spent four of the last five days with no public events so he could focus almost exclusively on debate prep, although Biden critics say that "return to the basement" has much to do with evading questions over Hunter.
Still, Biden's history of self-imposed stumbles raises the distinct possibility that he could hurt his campaign, with or without Trump's help. It doesn't help Biden that expectations will be higher with just 12 days until the election.
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