President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden will meet in their first debate Tuesday in a presidential election year marked by extraordinary turmoil.
With the election 35 days away and early votes already being cast in some states, Biden has kept a lead over the Republican president in most national polls. While debates have not significantly shaken up the election in recent years, Tuesday’s highly anticipated matchup will offer the clearest contrast yet between the two men.
The debate, starting at 9 p.m. Eastern Time (6 p.m. Pacific Time) in Cleveland, is the first of three between Trump and Biden.
Here’s what to watch:
A fast-track push by Republicans to fill the Supreme Court seat held by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg is roiling an already deeply divided Washington and will likewise be a flashpoint during the debate. Both Democrats and Republicans believe the confirmation battle might energize their voters and shape a court that could decide major issues such as health care, abortion access and possibly even the outcome of the November election.
Biden has so far not heeded Trump’s call to release a list of potential court nominees, as the president did before naming Amy Coney Barrett as his choice to replace Ginsburg. Biden has focused on how the makeup of the court could threaten President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
The president’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to be a central focus. More than 200,000 people have died from the coronavirus in the U.S. while everyday life remains jumbled and many schools and businesses are still shuttered. The president has defended his response to the outbreak, frequently pointing to his move to restrict travel from China in February.
But the president and his backers have routinely dismissed experts’ analysis of the seriousness of the outbreak and measures to rein it in. A new book from journalist Bob Woodward revealed the president acknowledged intentionally playing down the seriousness of the virus earlier this year.
Biden and Democrats have keyed in on the president’s coronavirus response throughout the campaign, and the former vice president is expected to keep it front and center Tuesday.
CLASS (AND TAX BILL) CONTRASTS
Biden, who frequently highlights his working-class upbringing, has increasingly cast the election as a campaign “between Scranton and Park Avenue,” referring to his own childhood home in Pennsylvania and Trump’s adult life as a Manhattan businessman.
Biden is likely to turbocharge that argument Tuesday in the wake of a bombshell New York Times report on the president’s shrouded tax history, including that he paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and nothing in many other years.
Biden’s line of attack aims to cut into Trump’s support among white working-class voters, particularly in Rust Belt states that helped him win the presidency in 2016.
TACTICS AND STYLE
Trump, a former reality show star, is at ease on camera and has skipped formal debate preparation. He often leapfrogs to friendlier talking points like the confirmation of judges or “law and order,” favors derisive nicknames and withering attacks, and at times employs a dizzying number of false statements and misrepresentations.
Biden’s performances during the Democratic primary debates were uneven and played a role in his early struggles in polling and primary contests. With decades in politics, he’s also got more experience as a debater than the president. Biden has promised to be a “fact-checker” as he stands side-by-side with Trump but also says he doesn’t want to get sucked into a “brawl.” Look for the Democrat to walk a line between contrasting himself with the president and challenging the man who may continue his campaign attacks on Biden’s mental and physical stamina or his family.
MODERATOR AND FORMAT
The debate will be moderated by Fox News’ Chris Wallace, who has a reputation as a straight shooter. Wallace moderated a presidential debate in 2016, favoring direct questions to get the candidates talking. He said before the 2016 debate that he did not believe it is his job “to be a truth squad,” and he largely stayed away from interjecting to fact-check the candidates.
The format for Tuesday’s debate consists of six 15-minute segments, scheduled to focus on the following topics, selected by Wallace: “The Trump and Biden Records,” “The Supreme Court,” ”COVID-19,” “The Economy,” “Race and Violence in our Cities” and “The Integrity of the Election.”
Each candidate will be given two minutes to respond to a question from the moderator opening the segment. Candidates will then be able to respond to each other, and the moderator will use the rest of the 15-minute period to discuss the topic further.
Amid the customs and routines upended by the coronavirus will be the customary display of civility before the debate: Trump and Biden are not expected to shake hands at the opening. They will each be stationed at podiums spaced far apart and are expected to have a limited, socially distanced audience.
HOW TO WATCH
The 90-minute debate will start at 9 p.m. ET and will be aired on major networks and cable news channels including ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, PBS, NBC, MSNBC and C-SPAN. Most of the networks will offer a way to watch the debate live online, through their apps and accounts on YouTube and other social media channels.