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It is with both dread and fascination that we approach tonight’s first presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. What this campaign season has taught so far is that we should always expect the worst.

Of course, we hope that’s not the case. It would be gratifying to see an intellectual exchange that enlightens the American electorate and defines the two contestants and what they hope to accomplish. But viewers looking for civil discourse might better find it by switching channels to “Monday Night Football.”

The Trump/Clinton face-off at Hofstra University in New York is more likely to be a penalty-filled, helmet-to-helmet brawl that draws out the ugliest characteristics of these two contenders.

So far in this campaign, voters have been hit hard with an onslaught of intensely personal attacks by Clinton and Trump.

In recent weeks the Clinton-Trump campaigns have been all about character, personality, temperament and health, with very little substantive discussion of policy and vision.

If he repeats his Republican primary debate strategy, Trump will take the forum to the gutter early. He marched through the dozen intra-party face-offs with insults, name-calling and wild allegations.

Those debates got record ratings, but they also wiped out a lot of very qualified Republican contenders who should have known better than to try to match Trump taunt for taunt.

These were for the most part experienced candidates who were no strangers to the debate stage. But they tried to play Trump’s game and lost.

Hillary Clinton should be smarter than that. But she has never been a master of the debate stage. And if she brings her campaign strategy to tonight’s forum, her emphasis will be on taunting Trump instead of elevating herself.

That may not serve her well. Trump is better prepared for a street fight. Clinton’s advantage is a deep knowledge of policy and its consequences. That may not produce as many sound bites, but the contrast won’t be lost on voters.

For Trump, his challenge remains to look presidential. He has at times in recent weeks managed to pull that off, and it has helped stabilize his standing in the polls.

But the debate is unscripted, and that’s where Trump tends to get in trouble. Going personal with attacks on a woman candidate may not go over as well as when he was taking apart Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Remember his outrageous personal attack on Carly Fiorina? If Trump appears at all bullying, he’s done.

Moderator Lester Holt will have his hands full keeping the discussion substantive and the candidates apart.

There are no shortage of serious issues to be addressed in this campaign, both domestic and foreign. Americans are worried about their safety. Their cities are roiled by racial violence. The economic recovery is still leaving too many would-be workers behind. From North Korea to Damascus, the world seems to be falling apart.

These are serious times. Voters deserve a serious discussion of their concerns. Trump and Clinton should commit to giving them one tonight.

On another note: Although Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is making steady progress in the polls and has qualified for the ballot in all 50 states, he won’t be on the stage tonight. That’s a disservice to voters that should be rectified before the next debate.

How to watch

Tonight’s debate begins at 9 p.m. and runs for 90 minutes without commercial interruption. Topics to be addressed are America’s Direction, Achieving Prosperity and Securing America. It can be seen on all major broadcast and cable channels except ESPN, which will be showing the football game.

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