Trump, Biden to square off in first face-to-face debate of 2020 election

Trump, Biden to square off

To borrow a favourite phrase from a certain sitting U.S. president, Tuesday's debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden promises to be something the likes of which no one's ever seen.

What that something turns out to be – like much of 2020 so far – remains anyone's guess.

"Who knows what we're going to see?" said Mitchell McKinney, a professor of communication at the University of Missouri.

At the very least, it will surely be an "untraditional" affair, said McKinney, who as director of the university's Political Communication Institute has been studying U.S. presidential debates for much of his career.

Unlike many of Trump's detractors, however, McKinney sees method to the madness of someone he considers "a very smart strategic communicator."

In campaigns of yore, the basic underlying premise of a televised debate was to assess the incumbent president's track record to explore whether he deserves four more years in the White House.

"The strategy may very well be to keep the debate from taking up the primary proposition that usually the debates are focused on when an incumbent is seeking re-election," he said.

"The antics, the taunting, the tirades, the conspiracies – for Joe Biden to have to clean it up, to have to respond, to have to defend, all of that could well keep the discussion off of the last four years."

The debate, co-hosted by Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the Cleveland Clinic, will look a little different than in past years, said Peter Eyre, senior adviser to the Commission on Presidential Debates.

"Because of COVID considerations, there will not be a handshake between the candidates or the moderator at the beginning of the debate," Eyre said.

Rather than opening statements, moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News will begin the proceedings by posing the first question to Trump. A small number of guests will be in the audience, he added.

"Everyone in the debate hall on Tuesday night will be subject to a variety of health safety protocols, including COVID testing."

It's worth recalling Biden's performance in 2012 against vice-presidential challenger Paul Ryan to remember he's no stranger to the debate stage, said Karen Beckwith, the Flora Stone Mather professor in Case Western Reserve's political science department.

"The former vice-president is an accomplished debater," Beckwith said of Biden, who continues to enjoy a comfortable lead in national polls, and a narrower edge in key battleground states.

"Biden also is a bit of a street fighter, and he knows how to handle bullies. Biden was not kind to Paul Ryan during the vice-presidential debate eight years ago, and he's also unlikely to be knocked off his own debate agenda."

On that score, he needn't concern himself with the last four years. The last four days should suffice.

The number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., the highest on the planet, is closing in on 210,000, with the world on the cusp of a second wave. Unemployment is hovering at 8.4 per cent, up from historic lows but with analysts bracing for another downturn.

An explosive New York Times report paints a picture of Trump as a struggling, debt-addled businessman who paid just $750 in taxes in 2016 and 2017, owes $300 million in loans and wrote off more than $70,000 for hair styling during his tenure on "The Apprentice."

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