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Presidential Debate Preview: Trump, Biden To Take The Stage In Cleveland

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The time has come. After months of attacking each other at a distance, President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden will go at it face to face tonight in the first of three presidential debates. They will be in Cleveland, Ohio, at Case Western Reserve University in the Cleveland Clinic. Fox News Sunday's" Chris Wallace will moderate. He has identified six topics for the debate, including the pandemic and the economy.

How will the new revelations about President Trump's financial failings change the dynamics of the debate? We're going to ask Republican political strategist Scott Jennings. We've also got Democratic strategist Karen Finney with us on the line. Good morning to you both.

KAREN FINNEY: Good morning.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Good morning.

MARTIN: So before we get to The New York Times revelation, Scott, let's just ask a broader question here. President Trump is trailing Joe Biden in the polls by about nine points. What does he need to do tonight? Who does he need to reach?

JENNINGS: Well, I think he's got a couple of audiences. One, he needs to shore himself up with seniors. He did much better with seniors in '16 than he is doing in the polls in '20. So I think he needs to reassure them that he has their back when it comes to their health care, especially on the pandemic. I think that explains some of the softness. No. 2 - he needs to get Joe Biden to reinforce some of his negative priors. You know, he wants to try to get Biden to lose his temper or try to get Biden to lose his train of thought.

So I would expect the president to sort of relentlessly attack Joe Biden in an effort to get him off track. But those are the two, I think, debate priorities he has. And, of course, if he could get in some shots about, hey, here's my second-term agenda, it wouldn't hurt, either.

MARTIN: All right. So that was the softball to you. I'm feeling generous today.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So let's talk about The New York Times report on Trump's tax returns. So far, the president has just levied these general dismissals, calling it fake news. But, Scott, that's not going to be sufficient tonight - is it? - if he's given real questions about this.

JENNINGS: Well, I think they'll have a back-and-forth. He'll say that, like he said in 2016 - remember, Hillary Clinton attacked him, as Karen knows, in 2016 over this. And he said, it makes me smart. I asked my accountants to do what they could do to have me pay as little as possible. Biden will say that this is not fair, and it's immoral for someone so rich to pay so little. And Donald Trump will probably say something like, well, you built the tax code over 47 years. If you're mad about the rules, why did you build this system? I suspect that's how this will go down tonight.

MARTIN: Should we just not watch, then, Karen? I mean, come on.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Scott just summed it up?

FINNEY: Oh, I think it's going to be a little more lively than that (laughter). Look - here's the thing...

MARTIN: Explain how Biden should leverage this.

FINNEY: Well, a couple of things. I mean, No. 1 lesson learned from 2016 in debating Donald Trump, he had two things that he has a tendency to do. No. 1 - lie mercilessly. And so one of the things that Vice President Biden has to decide just - you know, just from a tactical standpoint is how much of his own time - because, remember, in a debate, you have only a certain amount of minutes where you actually are - you are giving your answers, right? How much of his own time does he want to spend correcting Donald Trump versus pushing - talking about his positive agenda and what he would do?

I think the - one of the most important things for tonight will be just the contrast that we'll see onstage because the other thing we know about Donald Trump is that he is very predictably unpredictable. And that is something that - as we saw in 2016, that's a challenge (laughter), to some degree, to prep for in a debate. I think you saw, you know, Hillary Clinton in 2016 really try to just ignore that and move through her answers, and I suspect you'll see the same from Vice President Biden in terms of ignoring, you know, sort of the rambling and the silliness.

I mean, there were a number of minutes - a number of moments in the first - in, for example, the first debate between Secretary Clinton and Donald Trump where he just rambled - at one point, rambled into an answer about and congratulated himself for forcing President Obama to release his birth certificate. And it's those kinds of moments that are very dangerous for Donald Trump when we are in the middle of a pandemic and people want to hear what's your plan.

MARTIN: Where is Joe Biden most vulnerable, Karen, tonight?

FINNEY: You know, I think - again, I think the biggest challenge is when you are debating someone who just cannot tell the truth, the tendency to want to correct and to...

MARTIN: Well, we've talked about what Donald Trump could do in terms of kind of derailing with obfuscation.

FINNEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: But what in Joe Biden's record could make him vulnerable tonight if President Trump goes on the attack?

FINNEY: Well, look - I think, as Scott pointed out, he will try to use the fact that Vice President Biden has been in office, both in the Senate and then obviously in the White House, and tried to use - and we saw this, actually, in 2016, right? - trying to use the Obama-Biden record in ways against him. But, again, I think Biden is pretty solid on that record and pretty clear about what that record is. And, frankly, I think, again, the goal needs to be to stay focused on making Donald Trump talk about his record and - I agree with Scott - not getting rattled, which I don't expect that he will, frankly.

MARTIN: OK, let's move through the last two questions quickly. Scott, you've got experience working for President George W. Bush's reelection campaign in 2004. You've got some experience helping a president deal with a major crisis. How does Trump need to handle Biden's criticism of the pandemic tonight?

JENNINGS: Well, it's important. A lot of incumbent presidents in the first debate get stuck trying to explain their record over the previous four years, and they never get around to going through their plan. So I think it's vital that Trump pivot out of it and not let Joe Biden drag him into relitigating the past. There are some people who think Trump failed on the coronavirus pandemic, you know, for the last six months but that he might have the better plan for economic recovery. That's far more fertile ground for Trump. The faster he can pivot into that debate and stay off of relitigating the past, the better off he'll be.

MARTIN: Biden's ahead by nine points in a lot of polls. Karen, is the role for him tonight, first, do no harm?

FINNEY: Absolutely, do no harm and take nothing for granted because (laughter), as we know, polls - what the polls say now isn't necessarily what happens on Election Day.

MARTIN: And, Scott, there's not going to be a big crowd, so this is going to be a different kind of Donald Trump we might see on this debate stage tonight.

JENNINGS: Yeah, not having a crowd definitely changes the dynamics in a room. Again, though, I think what Trump is going to be laser-focused on is trying to get Joe Biden to lose his temper and to try to get him rattled and to try to get him, you know, doing some of the things that, frankly, we've seen him do in other public engagements. You know, he had some heated back-and-forths with Elizabeth Warren, and he once challenged a farmer in Iowa to a push-up contest.

I mean, Biden has, when challenged, gotten a little bit off track. And, obviously, Trump is aggressive at challenging people, and I suspect that's - so he'll be laser-focused on one person and one person only, and that's getting Joe Biden off track and onto some sort of a rant.

MARTIN: I imagine Joe Biden's mission will be to do the same.

FINNEY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Scott Jennings, Republican strategist; Karen Finney, Democratic strategist. Hey, you two, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

FINNEY: Thanks.

JENNINGS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRICHOTOMY'S "JUNK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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