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What Biden and Trump need to do in the first debate

As President Biden and former President Trump gear up for their first debate of the cycle, political strategists are offering advice for how the two men should approach the event.  

The men will meet for the first time in four years when they face off against each other in a debate hosted by CNN on Thursday as they look to address voter concerns over their candidacies.  

For Biden, he must address anxieties about his age and fend off attacks over immigration and the everyday cost of living. Meanwhile, Trump has to face his recent New York conviction in a hush money trial and attacks regarding his role on Jan. 6, 2021.  

“They need to be able to sort of tune out or navigate the other to even have the space to get done what they need to do,” said Philippe Reines, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton who played Trump during 2016 debate prep. 

The debate will offer the clearest opportunity yet for the candidates to contrast themselves this election cycle. The opportunity is unique, given both men are now running on established records. 

The former president is currently tied or narrowly edging out Biden in polling in battleground states — a feat for Trump given his multiple indictments and first conviction.  

Biden has been preparing for the debate at Camp David with former chief of staff Ron Klain and a handful of advisers, and is reportedly holding mock debates while Trump has used policy meetings as a way to prep for the debate. Those preparing Trump for the CNN debate include multiple potential vice-presidential hopefuls.  

“The first debate will be a moment where we can break through to a larger audience that has yet to tune in to the presidential election and put a spotlight on the stark contrast between Joe Biden who is fighting for the American people, and Donald Trump who is fighting for himself as a convicted felon with an unhinged campaign of revenge and retribution,” said a senior Biden adviser.  

The adviser, however, lowered expectations about the weight of the debate, saying that it “is not a moment that we expect to define the trajectory of the election or move poll numbers in the near-term.”

Meanwhile, Trump has argued the CNN debate will operate with a three-on-one dynamic, with Trump having to defend himself not only against Biden but also the two moderators. 

“The true benchmark for Thursday’s debate should be whether or not Joe Biden can defend his disastrous record on inflation and the out-of-control border invasion vs. President Trump’s unquestioned first-term record of success, and if Biden can speak for himself without the overt participation and interference of two CNN moderators,” Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung said in a statement. 

“If given a fair opportunity to present his vision for America,” Cheung continued, “President Trump will lay out exactly how he plans to improve the lives of every American suffering from everything becoming too expensive and every community being turned into a border community thanks to Joe Biden’s incompetence.” 

Both men are contending with separate but still important concerns: For Trump, he’s dealing with the fallout from the overturning of Roe v. Wade as well as the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.  

But he’s also grappling with his conviction in a New York hush money case that found him guilty of falsifying business records. Additionally, he has been indicted in two federal cases in addition to one Georgia case over his attempts to overturn the 2020 election results in the state.  

Some of those issues prompted Republican primary voters to cast ballots for Trump rival Nikki Haley, though it remains unclear if those supporters will come home to their party in November now that she has said she will vote for the former president.  

Erin Perrine, who served as Trump’s campaign communications director in 2020 and worked on Trump rival Ron DeSantis’s super PAC this cycle, said the former president needed to deliver his answer on abortion and “not get bogged down in what other Republicans have or are doing.”  

“This needs to be about his position, and not anybody else’s,” she said.  

Brian Seitchik, who worked on Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns, advised that Trump needed to redirect any questions about the Capitol riot, his indictments or his New York conviction back to policy and what he accomplished during his term.  

Seitchik also suggested that Trump should let the president do more of the talking on stage. “The more Biden talks, the worse shape Biden is in,” he said.  

At the same time, Biden is grappling with serious issues of his own, such as persistently low approval ratings, Democratic primary voters protesting his administration’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war and issues like inflation and immigration. The president also has to brush off the nagging issue of his age. 

“I do think that President Biden can talk about his strong support for Israel,” said Robert Barnett, the high-profile Washington, D.C., attorney at Williams & Connolly who has worked on 10 presidential campaigns and advised on debate prep. Barnett added that the president can “talk about his attempts to moderate the policies of Israel in this war that have sadly killed tens of thousands.”

Biden is also contending with his younger son Hunter Biden’s recent conviction around his illegal possession of a gun. Barnett suggested that Biden should stay the course on how he’s handled the situation already.  

“Same way he’s done throughout the Hunter Biden process, which is to say that he’s president, and therefore he can’t interfere and won’t interfere with the process of justice. But he’s also a father who loves his son,” Barnett said. “I think that’s an easy answer that most people will relate to.” 

The CNN debate won’t be the last time viewers get to see the two men side by side. They’ll have another opportunity to hear from the pair again in September in a debate hosted by ABC News. 

But with attacks flying between the campaigns, the first minutes of the CNN debate could set the tone for the rest of the night — and the second debate too. 

“From the very first second, I mean, do they shake hands?” said Reines. “I mean, look, this has become such a visual thing, and it’s going to be heightened, because people are going to be looking at the president, so that’s going to start from the first second.” 

Source: The Hill

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