Biden vs. Trump: Will the First 2024 Debate Jolt the Race?

WASHINGTON—President Biden will use next week’s high-profile debate to frame the presidential election as a choice, casting himself as a steady leader and his Republican opponent as an agent of chaos seeking revenge against rivals.

Former President Donald Trump wants a pure referendum on Biden’s handling of the economy and competence in office, portraying the Democrat’s presidency as a failure undeserving of a second term.

Thursday’s showdown in Atlanta, the first of two debates scheduled for this year, provides the campaign rivals their biggest platform to establish the stakes of the race. It marks the earliest encounter ever by two presumptive presidential nominees since the beginning of televised debates in 1960 and will offer the many voters who haven’t fully tuned in to the campaign a chance to see the two side by side.

“That’s the power of this moment. The political world will stop, sit still and focus its attention on this debate for one night,” said Kevin Madden, an adviser to Sen. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns.

The two presidents—a current and a former—haven’t been in the same room since their second debate in October 2020, and have a clear disdain for each other. The debate gives both candidates a chance to reassure a public that has questioned their age—Biden is 81, Trump is 78—and fitness for a second term. The first debate in 2020 drew 73 million viewers.

With months to go before the election, polling has been relatively stable, although Biden appears to have gained a small but meaningful share of support in recent weeks.

As of Thursday, the president held his first-ever lead over Trump—by a tiny fraction of a percentage point—in the Fivethirtyeight.com average of publicly available national polls.

Trump has maintained a small lead in most of the battleground states that are expected to decide the election outcome.

Ahead of the debate, Biden has repeatedly attacked Trump’s character while Trump has time and again assailed the president’s cognitive abilities, telling audiences Biden can’t find his way off a stage. Each faces the challenge of winning over a small but crucial group of voters who aren’t happy with either choice.

biden vs. trump: will the first 2024 debate jolt the race?

Millions more will be tuning in expecting fireworks, and Biden and Trump are poised to deliver. Both share a common objective as they prepare for the debate: how to get under the other’s skin.

Biden’s team hopes the president can remind viewers of the chaotic moments of Trump’s first term. Biden is also expected to make the case that the former president would seek to help corporations and the wealthiest Americans by lowering corporate taxes and slashing healthcare benefits, aides said.

Biden’s task will also center on pushing back against what his campaign considers misleading and false statements from Trump while still driving an affirmative message of what a second Biden term might entail. Trump memorably heckled and interrupted Biden in the first 2020 debate.

“I think the big challenge here is how do you make sure to call out the mistruths, the lies, the half-truths that you can expect Trump’s going to be dishing out but without getting pulled into just playing on Trump’s turf,” said Bill Russo, a former Biden 2020 campaign aide.

Faiz Shakir, who served as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign manager during the primaries, said Biden would likely try to push Trump’s buttons in ways that would lead the ex-president to “offend, upset and annoy the vast majority of Americans who already voted against him.”

Biden, according to aides, also hopes to use the debate to hold Trump accountable for his role in helping to overturn Roe v. Wade and his vows to be a dictator just on “day one.”

Trump is expected to seek to rattle Biden with attacks on his age and competence, and part of his strategy is a hope that the incumbent will mangle his lines or appear weak.

In the weeks leading up to the debate, Republicans have been pointing to videos of Biden stumbling and appearing to wander off, clips that Democrats have labeled “cheap-fakes,” falsely edited to portray Biden in a negative light.

Trump has long tried to portray Biden as feeble and incompetent, but as the debate has neared, he has worked to raise expectations. “I assume he’s going to be somebody that will be a worthy debater. I don’t want to underestimate him,” Trump said Thursday on the All-In Podcast.

Trump and his campaign think the issues that matter most to voters are on their side, chiefly the economy. While Biden has overseen strong postpandemic job growth, higher rates of inflation have undercut voters’ views of the economy, polls show. Trump will look to hammer Biden on high-profile instances of violent crime, which the former president has linked to migrants crossing the southern border.

biden vs. trump: will the first 2024 debate jolt the race?

Biden is taking a traditional approach to the debate. He arrived Thursday night at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, where he plans to spend the coming days preparing for the debate and responses to likely questions.

His debate team will be led once again by Ron Klain, a former White House chief of staff and a three-decade veteran of presidential debates. Klain is taking personal time from his new role with Airbnb to work with Biden.

Biden has reviewed briefing books prepared by White House deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed as a way to synthesize policy differences with Trump, according to people familiar with the process.

The president will work through potential questions and responses with members of his team, including Klain, Reed, White House chief of staff Jeff Zients, campaign adviser Mike Donilon, White House senior adviser Anita Dunn and White House counselor Steve Ricchetti, the people said. Later in the process, Biden is expected to hold 90-minute mock debates.

Bob Bauer, Biden’s personal lawyer and a former White House counsel, played the role of Trump in the 2020 preparations. Campaign officials haven’t said whether Bauer, who is married to Dunn, will reprise that role this time.

Trump’s campaign says he won’t hold mock sessions with someone acting as his opponent and has played down preparation efforts. “President Trump takes on numerous tough interviews every single week and delivers lengthy rally speeches while standing, demonstrating elite stamina,” said senior adviser Jason Miller.

Still, behind the scenes, Trump has been brushing up on policy in sessions with aides and allies. Last week during a visit to Capitol Hill, he met with senators including Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) to discuss a range of themes that could arise during the debate.

Trump has also done sessions with Sen. J.D. Vance (R., Ohio), who, like Rubio, is in the mix to be Trump’s running mate, and outside adviser Kellyanne Conway, according to people familiar with the discussions. Stephen Miller, who helped Trump formulate his hard-line immigration policies, has also participated in briefings, as has Richard Grenell, Trump’s former acting national intelligence chief.

The 90-minute CNN debate, without a studio audience, will include two commercial breaks, and campaign staff may not interact with their candidate during that time. Microphones will be muted throughout the debate except for the candidate whose turn it is to speak. No props or prewritten notes will be allowed on the stage.

CNN said Thursday that Biden won a coin flip allowing him to pick which side of the stage he’ll be on—the right side of viewers’ screens.

That means Trump gets the final word in closing arguments.

Tarini Parti, Aaron Zitner and Lindsay Wise contributed to this article.

Write to Ken Thomas at [email protected] and Alex Leary at [email protected]

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