Trump, Biden prepare to debate at a time of mounting crises

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Preparations take place for the first Presidential debate in the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion, Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, in Cleveland. The first debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to take place Tuesday, Sept. 29. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

CLEVELAND – In an election year like no other, the first debate between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, could be a pivotal moment in a race that has remained stubbornly unchanged in the face of historic tumult.

The Tuesday night debate will offer a massive platform for Trump and Biden to outline their starkly different visions for a country facing multiple crises, including racial justice protests and a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs.

The health emergency has upended the usual trappings of a presidential campaign, lending heightened importance to the debate. But amid intense political polarization, comparatively few undecided voters remain, raising questions as to how, or if, the debate might shape a race that has been defined by its bitterness and, at least so far, its stability.

Biden will step onto the Cleveland stage holding leads in the polls — significant in the national surveys, closer in the battleground states — but facing questions about his turn in the spotlight, particularly considering Trump’s withering attacks. And Trump, with only 35 days to change the course of the race, will have arguably his best chance to try to reframe the campaign as a choice election and not a referendum over his handling of a virus that has killed more people in America than any other nation.

“This will be the first moment in four years that someone will walk on stage as co-equal to Trump and be able to hold him to account for the malfeasance he has shown leading the country,” said Steve Schmidt, senior campaign aide for John McCain’s 2008 Republican presidential bid and a frequent Trump critic. “If Biden is unable to indict Trump for all that he has done, (that) would be profound failure. There is no spinning that away.”

The president's handling of the coronavirus will likely dominate much of the discussion. The pandemic's force will be tangible as the candidates' podiums will be spaced far apart and the traditional opening handshake scrapped.

And the debate could be shaped by an extraordinary confluence of other recent moments: the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, allowing Trump to nominate a conservative jurist to replace a liberal voice and reshape the high court for generations, and the blockbuster revelations about Trump’s long-hidden tax history, including that he paid only $750 a year in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and nothing in many other years.

But the impact of the debate — or the two that follow in the weeks ahead — remains unclear.