Frenzy builds for epic debate

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Buckle up: Debate day is finally here

The anticipation for Monday night’s face-off between Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGermany’s Merkel says she has ‘good working relationship’ with Trump Sharpton confronts Omarosa at conference 100-day standard is 'ridiculous' to Trump because he's failed it MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDems seeing big increase in midterm House candidates When it comes to Israel, Trump’s first 100 days were one big fail Democratic leaders hurt their own party by ousting pro-life voters MORE has reached a fever pitch, with many expecting a defining moment in one of the wildest elections of modern times.

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Trump needs a big win on Monday if he is to get on a path to the White House, with polls showing a narrow but meaningful lead for Clinton.

But Clinton’s edge could be gone in an instant if Trump puts in a strong performance in the first debate or if she makes a disastrous misstep. Conversely, Trump’s chances of victory could plummet if he fails to convince voters he’s presidential material.

The clash, which will be held at Hofstra University in this Long Island town just outside New York City, is expected to draw the largest TV audience of any presidential debate in history.

The record is currently 80.6 million viewers, which was reached during a debate in 1980 between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Speculation is rife that the Clinton-Trump clash could draw a U.S. audience of 100 million or more.

The anticipation was tangible ;Sunday, with cable news networks already broadcasting from the site, a cavernous media center filling with hordes of reporters from the U.S. and beyond and tight security.

The debate takes place against a backdrop of racial tension, with police killings of black men in Tulsa, Okla., and Charlotte, N.C., sparking protests in recent days.

Clinton had planned to visit Charlotte on the eve of the debate but later canceled the trip, with her campaign citing a desire not to stretch the city's resources. Trump took to Twitter to accuse her of "bad judgement" in the episode.

Beyond that issue, the debate is likely to take in conventional subjects such as jobs, the economy and national security — the final topic an especially pertinent one in the wake of the bombings in New Jersey and New York.

The themes of the debate, selected by moderator Lester Holt of NBC News, will be “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity” and “Securing America.”

For the candidates, however, the real goal will be damaging the opponent while avoiding disaster during the 90 minutes at the podium.

In the modern era, debates have tended to be memorable as much for missteps or odd moments as for standout performances. The worst example may have been President Gerald Ford’s head-scratching assertion in 1976 that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”

Then-Vice President Al GoreAl GoreOvernight Energy: Trump orders review of national monuments, claiming ‘egregious abuse’ Al Gore: Trump climate moves ‘a shame’ Overnight Energy: Greens sue Trump over Keystone XL | House passes EPA science bill MORE’s ostentatious sighing during his first debate in 2000 with George W. Bush hurt him, as did President Obama’s oddly lifeless performance during his initial clash with Mitt Romney in 2012.

A gaffe along similar lines to Ford’s would hurt either candidate but especially Trump, whose readiness to serve is questioned by many voters.

In a New York Times/CBS News poll earlier this month, 67 percent of registered voters said Trump would be a “risky choice” to lead the nation, and 64 percent said he did not have “the right kind of temperament and personality to be a good president.”

On the plus side for Trump, Clinton has her own vulnerabilities, especially on questions of honesty. Her inability so far to give a succinct and persuasive explanation of her use of a private email address and server while secretary of State has frustrated even many Democrats.

The issue is another one sure to come up on Monday, especially after more documents related to the matter were released by the FBI on Friday and it emerged that top Clinton aide Cheryl Mills was given an immunity deal during the investigation.

Clinton has been reported to be working on a more deft answer on the topic, but Trump will surely try to knock her off balance — though whether he will repeat his epithet of “Crooked Hillary,” no one knows.

Clinton’s preparations have featured several different people playing the role of Trump, most notably longtime aide Philippe Reines. A key challenge, according to Clinton aides, is readying their candidate for all of the different demeanors Trump exhibited on the debate stage during the GOP primary process — combative in one clash, relatively restrained in another.

Trump has one important advantage, which is that expectations for him are lower than they are for Clinton. Despite his stunning victory in the Republican nomination battle, he is a political novice who has never before run for office. Clinton’s career in public life has spanned a quarter-century, including stints as U.S. senator and first lady as well as secretary of State.

If Trump surpasses expectations, he could expand the number of voters who see him as a plausible commander in chief — a shift that could reshape the race in fundamental ways.

But any gaffe or overly fractious moment could renew those doubts once again.

It’s game on for both candidates — and the stakes could not be higher.