WASHINGTON—When President Donald Trump meets Joe Biden in Nashville on Thursday for their final televised debate, he'll be hoping to shake up the campaign. He's running out of time: the election is 13 days away, and more than 40 million people have already cast their ballots.
Viewers tuning into the debate, which will be moderated by Kristen Welker of NBC News , can expect to see Trump lashing out wildly as he tries to inflict damage on Biden. The twist this time is that, unlike in their previous debate, he'll have to wait his turn to speak, as organizers will mute the microphones of each candidate as his opponent offers an initial answer to a question.
Trump is likely to bring up the story about Hunter Biden's laptop computer , part of a dubious theory of Biden wrongdoing he's been pushing since before his impeachment and no doubt hoping to finally give it some traction beyond his loyal voter base. With Biden's support at greater than 50 per cent in many polls, Trump's path to victory likely requires converting some Biden voters to his side, although nothing he has done recently indicates he has a strategy to do so.
Lately, the campaign news for Trump has been relentlessly bad. He trails in polls by an average of about 10 points nationally , and is losing virtually every swing state he'd need to win the electoral college. His job approval rating, which would be considered an early indicator that votes might start moving in his direction, was getting worse in a Gallup poll released Wednesday . His campaign has only $63 million on hand to Joe Biden's $177 million , and outside groups are flooding the TV airwaves with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pro-Biden ads.
Headlines this week have revealed that 545 of the children who Trump's administration separated from their parents at the border in 2017 remain orphaned because the government can't locate their parents; that Trump has a previously unrevealed bank account in China ; that COVID-19 cases in the U.S. continue to surge , as some Midwestern battleground states set hospitalization records.
Against that backdrop, Trump's been making a strange set of closing arguments in a flurry of rallies and campaign phone calls. This week, he has repeatedly attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci , the nation's most prominent COVID-19 adviser, using words like "idiot" and "disaster," and has suggested mockingly that Biden will take Fauci's advice and " listen to scientists ." He attacked an interviewer from the iconic TV show "60 Minutes" before the interview was even broadcast, assuring elevated ratings when it does. He's demanded that Attorney General Bill Barr immediately announce government action against Biden — an echo of his request to the president of Ukraine that led to his impeachment . He's fighting his fellow Republicans in the Senate to try to get them to approve a big stimulus deal.
Biden, meanwhile, has been quietly preparing for the debate, as Barack Obama stumped for him in Philadelphia Wednesday, and his campaign released a mom's apple pie-flavoured ad in which actor Sam Elliot drawls that Americans can "agree we all love this country, and go from there."
Before a previously scheduled second debate was cancelled , this one was supposed to focus on foreign policy. While the topic list has changed (climate change, race in America, COVID-19, American families, American security and leadership) to reflect the missed debate, both candidates' campaigns have said they welcome the chance to discuss foreign policy. Trump sees it as a strength, given his recent participation in peace deals with Israel, his overseeing of high-profile killings of terrorist leaders, and his promises to bring American troops home. Trump likely also sees it as an opportunity to raise allegations about Hunter Biden's corporate dealings in China and Ukraine, and through that to suggest corruption on Joe Biden's part. Biden has only slightly addressed that issue since reporting in the New York Post revived it as a Fox News topic within the past week, but it is likely he'll need to say more than he has with Trump standing on stage with him shouting about it.
Biden has long considered foreign policy a strength of his own, and while he's conceded Trump deserves some credit on the recent Israeli deals, he likes portraying Trump as an agent of international chaos who has antagonized allies and catered to dictators.
In my own conversations, the area where suburban anti-Trump voters have expressed the most hesitation about Biden is in the belief he'll raise their taxes. It's an issue that was emphasized on the front page of the New York Post on Wednesday, where the rapper 50 Cent suggested Biden would make him "20 Cent." Biden has tried to emphasize his plan will only raise taxes on those making more than $400,000 a year, but Trump will likely continue to accuse him of planning a "middle-class tax hike."
The experience of 2016 has made Democratic supporters wary of declaring victory early. Still, Biden is well ahead by most measures that traditionally predict election success. His debate strategy is likely to try to appear calm and in command and not make any mistakes.
Trump, however, faces his last obvious opportunity to change the fundamental course of the campaign, and though Republican supporters have publicly hoped he'll appear more reserved and in control than in the first debate, he'll probably be attacking wildly from many angles. Some of the same suburban voters who've told me they fear high taxes have offered one main complaint about Trump: that he appears unhinged and unpresidential. If he's manically aggressive, as he was in the first debate, he could wind up hurting himself in the eyes of those voters.
Trump is a candidate of wild swings who's spent the week swinging wildly. It's a fair bet he'll come in Thursday hunting for a knockout. Biden's approach is likely to be a careful rope-a-dope defence, trying to give the president just enough room to punch himself out.
What are your predictions for the final presidential debate? Do you think it will make an impact with voters?
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