Trump-Biden final US presidential debate: Five things to watch

Trump-Biden final US presidential debate: Five things to watch

President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, will meet on the debate stage for the second and final time on Thursday night at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. The 90-minute prime-time meeting comes just 12 days before Election Day.

Here are five things to watch for during tonight’s debate:

Trump needs to change the dynamic of the race

Trump cannot afford a status quo debate. National polls show him losing to Biden, and 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 – and perhaps last – opportunity to change the contours of the race while tens of millions of Americans are watching.

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 organisers decided the candidates would face each other virtually because of concerns about the president’s coronavirus infection.

Trump needs to find a way to focus the debate – and the election more broadly – on Biden and his liabilities. But to do that, he needs to avoid making himself the centre of attention, something that does not come naturally to the president.

The mute button

The mute button has gotten a lot of attention leading up to the debate, but its effect 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 an 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 is plenty of time for the candidates to mix it up.

Trump’s pandemic message

Whether he wants to, the president will have to talk about the coronavirus at length. And he has to come up with a better answer than he did during the first debate to convince persuadable voters that he has the situation under control.

It will not be easy.

Coronavirus infections are surging to their highest levels in months. More than 222,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. 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 has also highlighted carefully selected statistics that downplayed the extent of the crisis. He will have to come up with something better than that if he is going to convince anyone but his most loyal base that he has not completely surrendered to the deadliest US health crisis in a century.

Trump attacks on Biden’s son

Trump and his allies in the conservative media have ramped up their focus on alleged maleficence by Biden’s son, Hunter, in recent days. Biden’s team expects Trump to make those allegations a centrepiece of his debate strategy.

The president tried to make an issue in the first debate of Hunter and his drug use, which the younger Biden has publicly acknowledged. But Trump’s attack may have backfired when Biden declared he was proud of his son, who, like many Americans, had 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’s work overseas. The report centres on data allegedly recovered from Hunter’s laptop, though the data has not been verified and, if it is legitimate, does not tie candidate Biden to any corruption.

Biden’s team considers the issue a distraction from much more pressing concerns – namely, the pandemic – but Biden will certainly have to defend himself and his family again on Thursday night.

Will Biden avoid a major stumble?

Biden’s greatest foe on Thursday night may be himself.

Trump has struggled 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, 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 needs to avoid any embarrassing missteps on stage that would play into the broader Republican narrative that he is 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 preparations.

Still, Biden’s history of self-imposed stumbles raises the distinct possibility he could hurt his campaign, with or without Trump’s help. It does not help Biden that expectations will be higher after Trump’s weak performance in the first debate.