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An unprecedented debate could shake up a White House race like no other

Courtesy CNN

CNN — The confrontation in Atlanta between Joe Biden and Donald Trump Thursday night has a good chance of becoming the most fateful presidential debate in US history.

For the first time, a sitting president and an ex-president will lock horns before millions of viewers, in an encounter taking place far earlier than normal — even before the party conventions. The CNN-hosted showdown is the most pivotal moment yet in a neck-and-neck election, and it’s Biden’s best chance to shake up a reelection bid that he is in deep danger of losing as he struggles to convince voters that he’s delivered the political and economic normality he promised in 2020.

The momentous nature of this debate can only be fully understood against the backdrop of the unprecedented politics of the times. Since Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon staged the first televised debate in the 1960 campaign, there have been agonizingly close elections that have set the country on a sharply different course. But the stakes in 2024 are greater than ever because of Trump’s attempt to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power based on false claims of fraud in the 2020 election and his promise to wage a never-before-seen presidency of personal vengeance if he wins in November.

Had Sen. John Kerry beaten President George W. Bush in 2004 or ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made President Barack Obama a one-term president in 2012, there would have been significant political change. But the character of the republic and its global posture would not have fundamentally altered. That assurance cannot be applied with any confidence to the current election. Trump’s strongman impulse – epitomized by his claim before the Supreme Court that presidents have almost limitless power, as well as a blueprint for hardline new policies on immigration, the economy and foreign policy – means a second term could bring massive disruption.

“(It is) unbelievably historic. You cannot (over) hype up the importance of this,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday.

Democrats are desperate for the 81-year-old Biden to put on a show of vitality and sharpness amid concerns about his age. Seventy-eight-year-old Trump’s biggest liability might be himself and the possibility of a performance that could validate Biden’s warnings that he’s too “unhinged” to be president.

Biden is expected to hammer Trump over abortion — one of the few policy areas where he outpolls the former president — and his admiration of foreign dictators. Trump is already signaling he’ll portray Biden’s America in dystopian terms, beset by uncontrolled immigration, rampant crime and searing economic pain. The most extraordinary aspect of the debate is that it takes place less than a month after Trump was convicted in a criminal hush money case in New York. Biden has already highlighted the guilty verdict in campaign events, but Trump insists that he’s the victim of an attempt to weaponize the legal system to interfere in the election.

Both candidates are facing extreme pressure

Both men will hope to avoid the kind of debate night gaffes or odd personal quirks that have often gone viral and dominated critical post-debate media coverage that helps cement the perception of who won and who lost in voters’ minds. Vice President Al Gore’s theatrical sighs in 2000 and President George H.W. Bush’s unwise glance at his watch in 1992 both became emblems of losing campaigns. The risks are now much higher because of social media.

Presidential debates don’t always decide who wins in November. But the tension surrounding this year’s first debate in June, rather than in September or October as usual, is palpable.

“The closer the election, the greater the chance that a debate could influence it,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, who has conducted an in-depth study of every presidential debate. “A lot of times these mistakes reaffirm a caricature of one of the particular candidates that existed before it happened.” For Biden, that means no senior moments, and Trump would be advised to avoid outbursts that confirm Biden’s characterization of a tyrant in waiting.

Neither Trump nor Biden has debated since their final clash in the pandemic-disrupted 2020 campaign. And their preparation for one of the most important nights of their lives has reflected their character and political personas.

The president has been out of sight for days, huddled below the oaks, poplars and maple trees at the Camp David retreat with advisers, strategizing how to handle the most challenging debate foe in history. Fueled by lasagna and tacos, he’s taken part in mock debates, immersed himself in briefing binders and tried to anticipate Trump’s wild twists and diversions. It’s a debate camp in keeping with Biden’s view that he’s locked in an existential election duel with the soul of the nation on the line.

The former president hates mock debates and has instead honed his preparation at rallies and events, trusting his instincts and intuition and a feral sense of an opponent’s political weakness. He has, however, had policy refresher sessions with aides and some potential vice-presidential picks including Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Biden has raised the stakes for himself heading into the debate higher than those any modern president faced. He argues Trump is a criminal in whom something has “snapped” and who is too dangerous and reckless to be let back into the White House. He’s also rebuked Trump for using Nazi-style language and warned democracy and freedom are on the ballot along with the capacity of ‘We the People’ to shape America’s destiny.

Preparing for anything at Camp David

Biden’s debate team is led by former White House chief of staff Ron Klain, who has been prepping Democrats for presidential debates for a generation. One of Klain’s mantras is “while you can lose a debate any time, you can only win it in the first 30 minutes.” Biden is therefore expected to front-load the most important points to appeal to the likely highest rated part of the primetime event.

The Biden team has been poring over Trump’s recent public interviews and speeches while workshopping responses to whatever he and the moderators may throw Biden’s way. The president will be ready for whichever version of Trump shows up – whether it’s the bombastic opponent who talked over and insulted him in their first clash in 2020, or a more restrained challenger seeking to project stability. If Trump aims for a presidential bearing, Biden has a locker full of practiced attacks and rebuttals designed to provoke him into making the outbursts that could turn voters off.

A Biden adviser told CNN that debate preparations have included getting the president ready to respond should Trump get personal  — weeks after his son Hunter was convicted of felony gun charges. Biden’s love and protective instinct for his family is always close to the surface, and he reacted furiously when the then-president brought up Hunter during their first debate in 2020.

Biden has been running through his paces inside a large hangar at the Maryland retreat, where there’s a mock debate stage complete with bright television lights. His personal attorney, Bob Bauer, is playing Trump and other aides have sat in as CNN moderators Dana Bash and Jake Tapper.

But sources told CNN that the debate practice was about more than feeling comfortable. It’s also about answering the age question. Aides and allies of the president alike have frequently pointed to his State of the Union address in March as a model example of Biden at his best. He was energetic, focused and nimble, they’ve argued, over the course of his 67-minute prime-time speech.

Trump’s debate prep is as unorthodox as he is

Sitting presidents often have a rude awakening at first presidential debates, since they are unused to anyone getting in their grill and contradicting them. But Trump’s advantage on this score may be compromised since he refused to debate any of his GOP primary rivals this year. Still, his aggressive debate style isn’t much different from the belligerent, spiky attitude he displays in most public events.

Trump has warmed up for the debate by suggesting that Biden will be “jacked up” on drugs, as his aides frantically have tried to dismantle the expectations trap that the ex-president constructed for himself by suggesting that Biden is so mentally diminished that he can barely stand up or finish a sentence. In any other era, the idea of a candidate accusing an opponent of doping would be unthinkable. But Trump’s tactic is a reminder of a presidency and a political style that has shattered all previous norms.

In a new memo on Wednesday, Trump’s campaign signaled that the ex-president would assail Biden over immigration and the economy. It boasted about polling averages that his team says show the former president up in all the key states.

And Trump, whose administration created a gale of daily falsehoods, characteristically worked to accuse Biden of the very transgression that is most associated with him — lying. “The man is a walking lying machine and a fact-checker’s dream,” Trump wrote on Truth Social, while accusing Biden, one of the best presidential golfers, of being unable to hit a ball 10 yards.

Trump’s unorthodox approach means that the country may get another reminder of the chaos, discord and cacophony that it experienced in his four years in office — and that his supporters love and want to restore.

But it’s also a risk that could play into Biden’s desire to get voters to see the contrast between the 45th and 46th presidents that he believes could deliver him the election.

Former Obama speechwriter Terry Szuplat said successful debate performances tell a coherent story of where the country is and where it is going.

“It’s a story about yourself. Why you’re the right candidate. Why the other candidate is the wrong candidate. And it’s a story about the future. Every election is about the future. It’s a choice about the future,” Szuplat told CNN’s Kasie Hunt.

Neither Trump nor Biden has so far fulfilled that goal. Thursday is the best chance to do so.

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