For Biden and Trump, a Debate Rematch With Even Greater Risks and Rewards


The debate between President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump this week will be the highest-stakes moment of their rematch, plunging two presidents into an extraordinarily early confrontation before a divided and angry nation.

For Mr. Biden, the debate in Atlanta offers an opportunity to remind voters of the chaos of his predecessor’s leadership, his criminal convictions and to warn of an even darker future should he win a second term. For Mr. Trump, it’s a chance to make his case that America has grown more expensive, weaker and more dangerous under his successor.

But the face-off on Thursday also poses significant risks for the two men — both of them the oldest candidates ever to compete in a presidential race — who have been locked in a contentious rivalry defined by mutual hatred for more than four years. That animosity heightens the evening’s unpredictability. A notable misstep — a physical stumble, a mental lapse or a barrage of too-personal insults — could reverberate for months, because of the unusually long period until they meet again for the second debate in September.

“This is a big inflection point,” said Karl Rove, a leading Republican strategist who guided George W. Bush’s two successful presidential runs. “Can Biden be consistently cogent, causing people to say, ‘Well, maybe the old guy is up to it?’ And is Trump going to be sufficiently restrained that people say, ‘You know what, it really is about us, not about him?’”

This presidential debate will be the earliest in the nation’s history and notably different from those familiar to many Americans. Hosted by CNN rather than a nonpartisan commission, it will be simulcast on more than five networks, without a live audience and without opening statements. Each candidate will have two minutes to answer questions, followed by one-minute rebuttals and responses to the rebuttals, and their microphones will be muted when it is not their turn to speak.

The two men are taking strikingly different approaches to their preparation. Mr. Biden hunkered down with his aides at Camp David for formal debate sessions, with the part of Mr. Trump expected to be played by Bob Bauer, the president’s personal attorney. The former president is taking a looser approach but is participating in more “policy sessions” than he held in 2020.

Mr. Trump’s advisers hope the former president keeps his attention on the issues that are widely seen as Mr. Biden’s biggest vulnerabilities — inflation and immigration — and is not baited into exchanges over his false claims about a stolen 2020 election and a justice system he claims is rigged against him.

Mr. Biden’s team sees an opportunity to focus Democratic and independent voters, and even some moderate Republicans, on how much more radical a second Trump administration might be than the first. Yet they are also preparing for Mr. Trump to deliver a more disciplined performance than in the first debate of 2020, when he had a chaotic showing that was likened to a “dumpster fire.”

“This debate is an opportunity to show the American people what those of us who watch Donald Trump all day, professionally, are seeing, which is that he is more unhinged, he is more dangerous, he is out for revenge, and anything that raises those stakes directly with the American people is a net positive for us,” said Rob Flaherty, a deputy campaign manager for Mr. Biden.

For his part, Mr. Trump is preparing to answer questions about threats to American democracy and his promise to pardon rioters involved in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. He has told associates he will emphasize that he will tackle the Jan. 6 pardons on a “case by case” basis and will distinguish between those who committed violence and those who didn’t.

And after spending months questioning Mr. Biden’s ability to endure a 90-minute debate at all, let alone perform at a peak level, Mr. Trump has reversed himself to attempt to reset higher expectations.

“I don’t want to underestimate him,” Mr. Trump said on a recent podcast. He referred back a dozen years to Mr. Biden’s 2012 vice-presidential debate to praise the president’s skills. “He beat Paul Ryan, so I’m not underestimating him,” Mr. Trump said.

Steven Cheung, Mr. Trump’s communications director, blamed the media for setting low expectations for the president.

“The true benchmark for Thursday’s debate should be whether or not Joe Biden can defend his disastrous record on inflation and the out-of-control border invasion versus President Trump’s unquestioned first-term record of success,” Mr. Cheung said.

The event will be the first time American voters see Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump in a direct exchange since October 2020, when they met for the final debate of their last race. It is also the first time they have been in the same room since then.

Much has changed in the interim. The country has lived through a pandemic, an uncertain economy, a siege on the nation’s Capitol, the fall of federal abortion rights and become enmeshed in two bloody global conflicts. Mr. Trump is now a felon, convicted of 34 counts by a New York jury. And Mr. Biden has become an unpopular president, facing deep opposition not only from Republicans but among his party’s base.

And yet polls have shown little movement between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden. Both men are widely disliked by broad swaths of the nation and locked in a tight race, though Mr. Trump had been largely narrowly ahead in national polls earlier this year.

Representative James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who is a close ally of Mr. Biden’s, described the debate as a potentially “crucial moment” for the president’s trajectory in the race.

“He is beginning to move the needle,” Mr. Clyburn said, pointing to recent national polls showing a slight uptick for the president. “This debate could very well be important as to whether or not we continue that momentum or whether or not it runs into a snag.”

Almost no one — including some of Mr. Biden’s top strategists — expects the debate to immediately upend a race between two extremely well-defined candidates. Biden aides view the debate as the starting bell for the general election, an event that will provide a high-profile opportunity to define the terrain of the contest. They sought successfully to move the debate months earlier to help prod the public to pay closer attention.

“This is going to be a long, close race,” said Molly Murphy, a pollster for the Biden campaign. “Message discipline, persistence and being in front of voters at all times is ultimately going to be what matters.”

Both candidates are, in their own ways, incumbents. Yet, the debate reverses their standing from 2020. Four years ago, it was Mr. Trump who was forced to defend his record in the midst of a raging pandemic. Now, it is Mr. Biden who will face attacks over his stewardship of an economy that, while strong by some measures, has been defined for many voters by high prices and a tight housing market.

Mr. Trump is particularly focused on a trifecta of developments he believes portrays his administration in a more favorable light — higher inflation, American entanglement in two new foreign wars and a surge in border crossings since he left office. Mr. Trump regularly blames Mr. Biden’s border policies for domestic crimes.

Representative Juan Ciscomani, an Arizona Republican running for re-election in one of the nation’s most competitive districts, says that such a focused contrast could favor Mr. Trump. Voters in his district in the Tucson area, he said, can easily compare what their life was like over those two four-year periods.

“You can tune out the news, but you can’t tune out not being able to afford groceries,” Mr. Ciscomani said. “From the border to inflation, people feel like they’re worse off today than they were three, four years ago.”

Aides to Mr. Biden say the president plans to highlight some of the more divisive proposals embraced by the former president and those close to him, including the possibility of deporting millions of undocumented immigrants and imposing a new 10 percent tax on imports, to paint a bleak picture of what could happen should Mr. Trump win re-election.

As Democrats have done for months, Mr. Biden plans to cast Mr. Trump as a threat to what they see as fundamental American freedoms, such as abortion and voting rights. They plan to pair those attacks with an economic argument that Mr. Trump would choose big businesses and billionaires over helping average Americans. In recent days, Mr. Biden has signaled a willingness to tie his economic argument to Mr. Trump’s criminal record, casting the race in one ad as a choice “between a convicted criminal who’s only out for himself and a president who’s fighting for your family.”

Mr. Biden also wants to blame Mr. Trump for the fall of Roe v. Wade, which the former president helped usher in with his Supreme Court appointments. Four years ago, Mr. Biden warned voters that Roe was on the ballot — a charge that Mr. Trump waved off in their first debate, saying: “Why is it on the ballot? It’s not on the ballot.”

Mr. Trump is unlikely to dodge the issue as easily this year, after nearly two years of a steady drumbeat not just of abortion bans but of conservative Christian efforts to restrict in vitro fertilization and other broadly popular procedures. Mr. Trump has consulted with Kellyanne Conway, his former aide who spent decades polling on the issue, and is likely to repeat the position he has embraced recently: Abortion should be left up to the states to decide.

Democrats have signaled that Mr. Biden will push back by arguing that Mr. Trump would go further if he regains the White House, by imposing sweeping new federal restrictions on abortion access.

Gail Gitcho, a Republican strategist, argued that rhetorical clashes onstage could matter less than usual given voters’ experiences living under both the Biden and Trump administrations.

“What voters are considering is how was my life under President Trump and how is my life under President Biden,” she said. “They are either choosing between presidencies or personalities — and they’re more likely to choose between presidencies.”

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