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Debate Preview: Best Chance To Still Persuade The Persuadable

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

The first presidential debate is tomorrow night, and voting has already begun in many states. So the debates offer the best chance for the candidates to reach the sliver of people who could still be persuaded. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The first presidential debate of the 2020 election comes at a moment of high anxiety for the country.

FRANK LUNTZ: The public is fed up. And we are so on edge with the passing of a Supreme Court justice; with an economy that is on knife's edge; a virus that has now taken 200,000 lives; another city up in flames, it seems, each day.

LIASSON: That's Republican strategist Frank Luntz, who conducts focus groups with at least a thousand voters every week. He says they are simply worn out.

LUNTZ: And they want a sense of normality again. They want to return to their day to day lives safely, sensibly and responsibly. And that is how they will judge the two candidates Tuesday.

LIASSON: Luntz says the voters tuning into the debate don't want to see a cage match or a bloodbath, and that poses a particular problem for the incumbent. Donald Trump needs to change the dynamic of the race from a referendum on his leadership to a binary choice between him and Joe Biden.

LUNTZ: There's a path for Donald Trump, but it requires a discipline and a focus that he has often not shown. And it requires him not to make the kind of personal attacks that have made voters so angry with him.

LIASSON: Personal attacks like the ones he aims at Joe Biden almost every day - the baseless accusation that Biden takes performance-enhancing drugs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They give a big fat shot in the ass, and he comes out.

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: And for two hours, he's better than ever before.

LIASSON: That's false just like Trump's attack that Biden is senile.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Oh, sleepy Joe.

LIASSON: He also says Biden isn't tough enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: You know, in his best days 25, 30 years ago, he was weak. He was weak. As a senator, he was weak. He was not known as being one of the smart ones.

LIASSON: But Republican consultant Brett O'Donnell says Trump has no choice. He has to attack Biden in any way he can.

BRETT O'DONNELL: The president should go on offense, and he should stay on offense because that's the way he can make Biden make errors in the debate. And he certainly should be on offense if he wants to make this a choice election.

LIASSON: For Biden, the debates also present some difficult challenges.

PHILIPPE REINES: Donald Trump is a terrible debater. It is terribly difficult to debate Donald Trump.

LIASSON: That's Philippe Reines, who played Donald Trump in Hillary Clinton's debate prep sessions. He says Biden should try not to take the bait.

REINES: This is really a matter of two people mostly having a conversation with the moderator and in the form of talking to the camera. I mean, you're going to have a Super Bowl-sized crowd watching and listening audience. You really have to take advantage of that, and every minute that Joe Biden is sparring with Donald Trump, it's a problem.

LIASSON: Biden said recently that he hopes he doesn't get baited into a brawl with Trump, but he will have to figure out some artful way to answer Trump's attacks - something like what he did in the vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL RYAN: Our allies are less willing to...

JOE BIDEN: With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And why is that so?

BIDEN: Because not a single thing he said is accurate.

LIASSON: Biden has said he also plans to be a fact-checker in his debates with Trump, but former Obama White House political strategist Dan Pfeiffer says that should not be his primary goal.

DAN PFEIFFER: Despite Biden's lead, there still remains a dearth of knowledge about his agenda and who he is. This is his best chance to get his message out and cement his lead.

LIASSON: There are other hurdles for Biden. Even though the Trump campaign has unintentionally lowered expectations by attacking him relentlessly as old and out of it, Biden will still need to reassure voters that he's up to the job. In the end, says Frank Luntz, the debate will come down to this.

LUNTZ: When there is no similarity and no overlap between what these two candidates stand for and what they will do, it means that it is only about personality. So this is not just about who's got a better plan for the economy or for COVID. It's who they trust more and who they want to be in their lives for the next four years.

LIASSON: Luntz figures there's only 6% of voters who are truly undecided, and only about a third of them live in competitive states. So tomorrow's debate will have a huge audience, a tiny target and very high stakes. Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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