Pivotal debate poses ‘balancing act’ for Trump, Clinton

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Hempstead, N.Y. — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will square off Monday night in their first televised presidential debate in what could be a pivotal moment in a tumultuous election cycle.

The 90-minute prime time debate at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York, comes nine days after a suspected terror bombing in Manhattan and amid racial tensions stemming from unrest in the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina, last week over the fatal police shooting of a black man.

Both candidates will be seeking to answer questions voters have about their ability to lead the nation, pollster Richard Czuba said.

“There’s a balancing act going on right now — is Donald Trump qualified to be president? And do we trust Hillary Clinton to be president?” said Czuba, who does polling for The Detroit News. “I think this first debate is going to be extremely important because it’s simply going to answer those two questions for a lot of people.”

Trump and Clinton’s first face-to-face meeting after weeks of trading barbs about each other’s fitness to be commander in chief is expected to break the 2012 record of 67 million viewers who turned into the first debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

“The interest level and people following this on a day-by-day — if not hour-by-hour — basis is just unseen before in American politics,” said Tom Shields, a Lansing-based Republican political consultant.

Clinton has experience in one-on-one debates, having faced off against Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries and more recently debating Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders during this year’s primaries, including a memorable showdown in Flint.

“It’s critical that she doesn’t try to be somebody that she’s not,” said Jessica Tarlov, a New York-based Democratic political strategist. “She’s never going to be a showman like Donald Trump.”

For Trump, the first debate serves as a new test. The New York businessman didn’t have to go round for round with a single opponent during the Republican primary debates, when he shared crowded stages with up to 10 GOP rivals taking turns answering questions.

“Expectations are fairly low (for Trump), given the fact a lot of Republicans are holding their breath, afraid he’s going to say something that’s going to backfire,” Shields said.

Clinton and Trump’s past debate experiences may provide guidance of what could transpire during the 9 p.m. debate being moderated by NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt and the following two debates.

During a Democratic primary debate last October, Sanders famously told Clinton that Americans were “sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” effectively giving Clinton a pass on running a home-brew email server from her New York home while she was secretary of state.

“Trump is not going to be so generous,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. “Clinton has got to be prepared for a lot of issues that were vulnerabilities during the primary but just not exploited by Sanders.”

Kall, who is attending the debate in person, said he expects Clinton to try to needle Trump, testing the Republican nominee’s temperament and volatility.

“For him, the trick is going to be to not take the bait from Clinton,” said Kall, co-author of a new book titled “Debating The Donald.”

Trump has be careful not to appear to be a bully standing side by side with the first major-party female presidential candidate, said Leslie Feldman, professor of political science at Hofstra University.

“In a sense, Trump won’t be able to use his best weapon when he needs it most,” Feldman said.

Clinton’s actions as secretary of state, including her handling of a deadly Sept. 11, 2012 attack on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, remain fair game for Trump to go after in the debate, she said.

“He can attack her actions,” Feldman said. “He can say she is incompetent because of Benghazi or because of the emails, but he should stay away from attacking her personally.”

Trump found his words about a female opponent used against him during a Republican primary debate last September when CNN’s Jake Tapper asked former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina about comments Trump made about her appearance in an interview with Rolling Stone.

“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Trump told the magazine. “Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”

Trump later said he was referring to Fiorina’s persona, not her face.

“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina said to applause inside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Fiorina’s response was shown in a split-screen format on television as Trump interjected before a commercial break: “I think she’s got a beautiful face, and I think she’s a beautiful woman.”

“That may have been his worst, or one of his worst, debates,” Kall said. “It really wounded him, and I don’t think he ever recovered in that debate.”

Political experts said Trump would be best advised to debate Clinton on her actions as a U.S. senator and the country’s chief diplomat and avoid personal attacks.

“I think he’s got to be careful as well, that if he lets fly words, or gestures, or anything that conveys the kind of sexism and misogyny we’ve seen out of him, that’s going to be a real problem,” said Mark Brewer, a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.

Jill Alper, a Democratic strategist from Grosse Pointe who is working on the pro-Clinton Correct the Record super PAC, said expectations for Clinton’s debate performance will be “absolutely higher” because she’s been involved in politics for longer than Trump.

Alper contends Trump should be just as scrutinized as Clinton because of his years in the public eye as a celebrity billionaire and reality television star.

“It’s not like he’s some spring chicken,” Alper said. “He’s been doing this in a different way for all of these years.”


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Twitter: @ChadLivengood

How to watch the debate

Location: Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Time: Monday, 9 p.m.-10:30 p.m.

Moderator: Lester Holt of NBC Nightly News

Topics: “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity” and “Securing America”

Format: Six time segments of 15 minutes each. The moderator asks either Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump a question, and each get 2 minutes to respond. Trump and Clinton can then interact with each other.

Where to watch

Television: ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, PBS, C-SPAN, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC

Online: Live-streamed on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other internet sites

Where to listen: NPR News and POTUS channel on Sirius XM