Biden, Trump Face Worst Enemies in Final Debate—Themselves
U.S. President Donald Trump, top center, and U.S. First Lady Melania Trump walk off stage as Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, second right, talks with moderator Chris Wallace, left, next to wife Jill Biden after the first U.S. presidential debate. (Photographer: Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg )

Biden, Trump Face Worst Enemies in Final Debate—Themselves

President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden will square off for 90 minutes in their final debate Thursday night, but the biggest risk for each candidate comes more from their own weaknesses and less from each other.

In one of the last potential turning points of the 2020 election, both men will seek to improve their performances Thursday night at 9 p.m. New York time in what political consultants from both parties say was a disastrous first meeting.

Trump faces the bigger challenge, as he will need to tamp down his aggressive posture from the first encounter, which cost him some support, and make the case for a second term, a line of argument he has struggled with in the past.

Biden, Trump Face Worst Enemies in Final Debate—Themselves

Biden, who is ahead by nearly 8 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, has the simpler task of avoiding any debate-defining gaffes that change the status quo. And he needs to minimize reactions to Trump’s provocations.

The debate, at Belmont University in Nashville, will have one twist after Trump talked over Biden repeatedly during the last face-off, in Cleveland. Moderators will now mute each candidate while the other gives his initial two-minute response on each topic. It is unclear if that helps Biden, who struggled to get out his message when Trump interrupted him, or Trump, who could play up the appearance of being silenced.

Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant in California, said that Trump could improve his re-election prospects with a more subdued performance that reassured Republican voters who have been turned off by his combative political persona.

But in reality? “I just don’t think he has that in him,” he said.

The former vice president’s biggest risk is looking lackluster.

Two minutes of uninterrupted debate time might also be a risk for Biden, who has a former senator’s tendency to speak at length. Trump could use his occasional pauses, or stammers, against him to bolster his claim that Biden is too old for the job.

And although a appearance last week at an ABC News town hall was well received, Biden let Trump’s badgering get to him in the first debate, when he called the president a “clown” -- a moment he later said he regretted.

The debate will be moderated by NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker.

Here’s what else to look for as the two candidates face off.

The Hunter Biden Moment

Trump’s biggest trap may be one that he laid himself.

Since last year, the president has tried to turn Biden’s son Hunter into a liability, but the blows never seem to land and instead hurt Trump.

The president was impeached but acquitted early this year after trying to persuade Ukraine’s president announce an investigation into Hunter Biden’s work for an oil company there.

Republican strategists not affiliated with the Trump campaign say the worst move Trump could make is to try to bring up recent unverified claims about Hunter Biden’s emails made by his personal lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, although Trump has vowed to do just that.

Biden, Trump Face Worst Enemies in Final Debate—Themselves

Not only has the attack failed to damage Biden so far, they say it will sidetrack the president, wasting time he could spend making the case for his re-election.

Biden Reminiscing About the Old Days

As the candidate who would be the oldest incoming president if elected, Biden faces a risk any time he reminds voters of his age.

And his tendency to reminisce about his boyhood days in Scranton and his early years in the Senate has led him astray in past debates and other events.

That has happened when he told a story about squaring off against a gang leader named Corn Pop in Delaware in 1962, discussed his friendship with segregationist senators in the 1970s or suggested that parents “have the record player on at night” to help children learn.

Not only did those moments hurt Biden in those events, they also went viral on social media, leading to news coverage and giving them an outsized effect on his campaign.

Both Need to Connect With Voters

Both candidates also must work harder to connect with voters watching at home.

Peter Stanton, a communications consultant in Washington, said that Trump had a tendency to look at Biden at the first debate, which gave him a “Nixon-like” appearance that only reinforced his truculent image.

Biden did well when he looked straight at the camera and empathized with the plight of regular Americans, he said, but he didn’t sustain it throughout the debate.

With very few undecided voters left, Stanton said that the policy differences matter less. The voters who haven’t yet picked a candidate will be looking for something they can believe in, he said.

“Neither candidate’s key point can be that the other guy is bad,” he said. “It’s got to be more than that.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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