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Trump needs to disrupt, Biden to reassure at first debate, experts say

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Cleveland — President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will meet for their pivotal first debate Tuesday — 35 days before the Nov. 3 election — in the Midwest, a region that could ultimately decide who leads the country.

With polls showing the Democratic nominee in the lead in most battleground states, including Michigan, Trump needs to find a way to change the race while Biden must prove he's ready to be president, say experts who've been monitoring poll numbers and tracking past debates.

"It’s really one of the last opportunities both candidates have to fundamentally impact the race," said Aaron Kall, director of debates at the University of Michigan.

Trump, Biden

While the two candidates are scheduled to debate three times, Tuesday's event is the most important because it will likely draw the largest viewership and because more people will have already cast early ballots by the second debate on Oct. 15, Kall said.

Biden and Trump are scheduled to take the stage at 9 p.m. Tuesday in Cleveland at the Health Education Campus, a joint project of Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the debate will be "significantly different from past debates," according to the event's website. The crowd of attendees will be smaller with added distance between seats, personal health screenings and other safety measures. Reporters covering the debate have to be tested for the virus before gaining access to the site.

As of Monday, the United States had reported about 205,000 deaths linked to COVID-19 this year, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University.

While it's affecting how the debate functions, the pandemic is also one of the six topics that moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News plans to emphasize. The others are the candidates' records, the Supreme Court, the economy, race and violence in cities, and the integrity of the election.

On Monday, there was a heavy police presence surrounding the campus where the debate will take place as protests are possible. There was also fencing with signage on it that read: "You are subject to search beyond this point."

On the campus, weapons, fireworks, ladders, supports for signs, umbrellas with metal tips, canned goods and tennis balls are among the banned items, according to the city of Cleveland.

What's at stake for Biden

The Republican incumbent, 74, has repeatedly questioned his 77-year-old opponent's mental fitness to be president.

"We will win against a tired, exhausted man, Sleepy Joe Biden, in November," Trump tweeted on May 12.

But in recent weeks, the Trump campaign has shifted its approach, highlighting Biden's debate experience as a former vice president and previous presidential candidate. On Sunday, Trump called for Biden to take a drug test prior to or after the debate.

"His debate performances have been record setting uneven, to put it mildly," the president tweeted Sunday.

Former Vice President Joe Biden waves to the crowd, flanked by then candidates New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, left, California Sen. Kamala Harris, who is now Biden's running mate, and New York businessman Andrew Yang on July 31 at the Democratic presidential debate at Detroit's Fox Theatre.

If Biden gets through the evening without making a major mistake, he probably has a "really good night," said David Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University.

"Early on, they may have done the Biden campaign a favor by criticizing him and questioning his abilities," Dulio said of Trump's team. "All that does, at least in terms of the debates, is serve to bring down the bar."

For years, Biden has been known for making occasional gaffes while in the public spotlight. Former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, the 2012 GOP nominee for vice president, referenced that during that year's vice presidential debate.

"I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don't come out of your mouth the right way," said Ryan, explaining a quote from Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

With a smile, Biden replied, "But I always say what I mean."

Former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, a Biden supporter, said he's not worried about a gaffe from the former vice president.

“With the kind of stuff that Trump says, a gaffe here and there by Biden … I don’t think it’s going to matter," Blanchard said.

Biden needs to be himself: a good person and a statesman, he said. The former vice president should note inaccuracies but allow others to fully counter false claims made by Trump, Blanchard added.

What's at stake for Trump

While Biden's backers hope he avoids a major mistake, Trump will be looking to ensure one occurs. The president has to change the narrative of the race and plant seeds of doubt in voters' minds about Biden, said Kall, who edited a book analyzing Trump's past debates called "Debating the Donald."

The president is trailing in national polls and in key individual swing states, such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Biden led Trump 47% to 42% in a poll of 600 likely Michigan voters for The Detroit News and WDIV-TV earlier this month. The poll had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016, his smallest margin of victory nationally at about two-tenths of a percentage point. With the University of Michigan canceling its plans to host a debate because of the pandemic, Tuesday's night event is the lone debate in the Midwest, occurring in a state that borders Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, stands with then Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton Sept. 26, 2016, before the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Trump needs to take it to Biden and be aggressive for the full 90 minutes, Kall said.

The question will then be how Biden handles the "onslaught," said Richard Czuba, a pollster and founder of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group.

"When you do polls and you talk to focus groups, particularly women, they'll tell you, 'We've had enough of the tweeting. We've had enough lying. We've had enough of the misinformation,'" said Czuba, who conducted the Sept. 1-3 poll for The News. "And what Joe Biden cannot do is get caught up in that game."

The debate likely won't change many people's minds because so many have already taken their sides, Czuba said. However, the first debate is the most important of the three because it usually draws the most viewers, particularly the first 45 minutes of the first debate, he said.

Trump is going to talk about the economy, his vision for the country and what he's doing for the American people, said Laura Cox, chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party.

During a Tuesday press call, Cox labeled Biden "Sleepy Joe" and said there's a low bar of expectations for the former vice president.

Ahead of the debate, Biden's wife, Jill Biden, will make Tuesday stops in Michigan's Central Lake and Traverse City.

cmauger@detroitnews.com