It’s the last debate of the 2020 election.
Many might be saying, “Thank goodness,” given what a mess that first debate turned into.
After that debate — and the way President Trump in particular conducted himself — Trump took a hit in the polls. This final debate represents the last, best chance for the president, who has been consistently behind in this race, to gain some momentum.
It’s also the last, best chance for both candidates to make their arguments to a broad audience of the American public for why they should be president. After Thursday night, there won’t be any opportunities like this left.
That brings us to our questions about what we are watching for in this debate, which begins at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday and is set to last 90 minutes (follow live coverage here):
1. Will Trump engage in an actual debate?
Trump’s antics in the first meeting meant there was little to no debate on substance despite more than 200,000 Americans having died from COVID-19, an economy that remains shuttered in many places and racial unrest in the country.
Will Trump have a repeat performance, or will he adhere — at least a little more — to rules and decorum, especially now with coronavirus cases spiking again?
If history is a guide, don’t bet on it. Remember when Trump promised he could be so presidential we’d all be bored? Well, we haven’t been bored.
2. How low does it go?
Joe Biden was understandably surprised by how Trump conducted himself the first time these two squared off.
“Will you shut up, man?” Biden said, unable to get a word in edgewise.
Biden tried to focus on people watching at home by talking straight to the camera. So how will he respond to those interruptions this time? Biden has maintained a low profile this past week, with few public events, likely for debate prep.
Biden’s only response so far to a questionable report about his son, Hunter, and his involvement in Ukraine was to get prickly with a campaign reporter who brought up the story.
“I know you’d ask it,” Biden said to a CBS News campaign reporter. “I have no response. It’s another smear campaign, right up your alley. Those are the questions you always ask.”
Trump has never shied away from conspiracies or attacking family, so expect he’ll bring it up. He has already prepped his attacks on the campaign trail, unabashedly calling Biden a “for-profit cash machine,” a “vacuum cleaner” and “corrupt” amid 2016-like rejoinders of “lock him up” at a rally on Saturday.
Nothing is off-limits for Trump, and when his back is against the wall, he’s not afraid to pull out any stops.
Biden will likely need a more temperate response than his one to the CBS reporter, something more akin to what he did when Trump went after Hunter Biden in the first debate.
“My son, like a lot of people, like lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” Biden said at the first debate. “He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
This line of attack has a chance to spiral down a rabbit hole of attacks on children, going both ways, but Biden’s campaign team doesn’t want him sucked into the mud. They believe their winning place to be is focusing on issues affecting voters.
3. Can Biden keep up the momentum?
With Biden’s expanded lead after the first debate, there isn’t much of anywhere to go but down.
Biden now has a 10-point lead in an average of the national polls and leads in every competitive state, except Ohio and Texas, albeit much more narrowly than his national lead in many cases.
So Biden’s job Thursday night will be to maintain and solidify those leads.
The bar for Biden in the first debate was practically on the floor. All he had to do was seem normal and competent and not mangle too many of his words, and he would be OK, given Trump’s repeated attacks on Biden’s fitness.
He exceeded that, and since that debate, Biden had one of his best performances of the campaign with his town hall on ABC, which replaced the second debate after Trump chose to skip it because the debate commission wanted the candidates to be remote, given Trump’s recent coronavirus diagnosis.
With this being the last debate, Trump will try anything to regain some momentum to get a repeat performance of running the table in 2016 and shrinking the gap in the final two weeks.
The onus is on Biden to have a solid performance, handle everything Trump throws at him and close the deal. That’s not the easiest task.
4. Will the moderator be able to … moderate?
The debate moderator is Kristen Welker of NBC News. As a White House correspondent, she has, at times, had a contentious relationship with the president.
On Saturday, Trump was already predictably working the ref, calling Welker “terrible and unfair.”
It’s an unenviable position to be in to attempt to moderate a debate that involves someone like Trump who doesn’t play by the rules. The debate commission says the following topics are to be covered: fighting COVID-19, American families, race in America, climate change, national security and leadership.
The commission is also instituting a rule that two-minute opening statements will be uninterrupted — and that the other candidate’s microphone will be muted during that time.
In a statement, the Trump campaign complained of the deck being stacked against it, lambasting “last minute rule changes from the biased commission in their latest attempt to provide advantage to their favored candidate.”
The campaign also said it believed this was supposed to be a foreign policy debate — despite no evidence of that being publicly stated.
That all sets things up for another potentially contentious debate with Trump lashing out, not just at Biden but at the moderator. One test of how the 90-minute debate is moderated is if Welker can get through all the topics.
And that’s to say nothing of being able to get through them in a substantive way.
5. Will Trump commit to a peaceful transition of power?
Trump has resisted unequivocally committing to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election.
That’s something that has separated the U.S. from other countries around the world and has maintained the country as a peaceful democracy, even when candidates and Americans sharply disagree about the direction the country should take.
Whether he means it or is just doing it to troll liberals and the media is unclear.
But in the first debate, Trump declined to say he would discourage violence by his followers and not declare victory prematurely if results aren’t known for an extended period.
“I’m urging my supporters to go in to the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it,” Trump said, adding, “I am 100% on board, but if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.”
During a town hall with NBC on the night of what was supposed to be the second debate, Trump walked a similar line.
“They talk about ‘Will you accept a peaceful transfer?’ ” Trump said. “And the answer is, yes, I will, but I want it to be an honest election and so does everybody else.”
Trump obviously does not want to give any indication at all that he’s even thinking about losing. But does he clean up what has been a confusing and noncommittal line with less than two weeks to go until Election Day?
Let’s see if he’s any more definitive in this debate.