Trump enters new debate frontier

Trump enters new debate frontier
© Greg Nash

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE is entering a new realm as a debater. 

The Republican presidential nominee has never debated another candidate one-on-one in his short political life. On Monday he'll face Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton: FBI investigation into Kavanaugh could be done quickly Hillary Clinton urges Americans to 'check and reject' Trump's 'authoritarian tendencies' by voting in midterms EXCLUSIVE: Trump says exposing ‘corrupt’ FBI probe could be ‘crowning achievement’ of presidency MORE instead of a crowd of other Republicans. 

Trump has also never debated in such a quiet setting. 


GOP primary debates sometimes resembled WWE wrestling matches, with an audience applauding and booing loudly depending on what it heard. Trump appeared to seize on many of those moments to turn the tide. 

At Hofstra University in New York on Monday night, the crowd will be directed to not applaud, cheer or boo, and it will at times feel like two people and a moderator talking in front of a quiet theater audience. 

How Trump handles this different setting remains to be seen, as experts say the primary debate format played right into his wheelhouse. 

“The very crowded stage served him very well,” said David Birdsell, a debate expert and professor at Baruch College, of the primary debate. 

“He was able to pick fights, land a quick one-off and then fade into the background, becoming a headline without a lengthy examination of his record and changing policy positions.” 

Trump’s most notable debate moments came not during a protracted back-and-forth on policy, but when he deployed quick one-liners that disarmed his rivals. 

While some opponents, like Carly Fiorina at the start and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP candidate scores upset win in Texas state Senate runoff McConnell tamps down any talk of Kavanaugh withdrawal Cornyn takes on O'Rourke over AR-15s MORE down the stretch, chose to attack him head on, Trump benefited when other candidates’ battles drew the spotlight, allowing him to pick his spots to strike hard and then retreat. 

But the general election format will be a “challenge for Trump,” Birdsell said. Now, the GOP candidate will be responsible for filling more time, unable to step aside and let a crowded field run down the clock. 

And the events themselves will be significantly longer. Networks loaded up the two-hour primary debates with commercial breaks, giving candidates time to collect themselves as well as shortening the event. 

Rival campaigns even accused Trump of using some of those breaks to confer with campaign staff in what would have been violation of debate rules. 

But the general election debate will be a 90-minute commercial-free event, testing the concentration of the Trump in his first one-on-one debate. 

That could put Trump at a disadvantage, both as a candidate outmatched by his opponent’s policy grasp and with a penchant for controversial comments. 

Trump’s debate prep appears to be less concerned about the former while looking to control the latter. 

Trump is reportedly taking a more hands-off approach with debate preparations, eschewing full-length test runs and deep-dives into briefing books, according to the New York Times. Aides even have expressed concern that Trump is downplaying the difficulties of staying on top of his game for the full 90 minutes.

Instead, Trump, who once owned a United States Football League team, is scouring game tape, footage from old Clinton debates, in the hopes of finding weaknesses to exploit. 

And his advisers are cautioning him to avoid falling into Clinton’s traps meant to frame him as unstable, and instead focus on hitting his campaign’s major themes. 

But those who took on Trump in the primary debates caution against taking him lightly—predictions that the Trump train would derail when the political novice took the debate stage fell flat.

Frank Sadler, Carly Fiorina’s campaign manager during the primary race, believes it would be foolish to “underestimate Trump.” 

“There’s this general thought that he can’t sit there for 90 minutes and answer policy questions in an effective manner,” he said. 

“He’s been effective with the media since he came down that escalator. To think in the brand new format that he would be at a disadvantage, I don’t agree.” 

Most critics point to Trump’s impulsive nature as potentially his undoing, as his campaign’s greatest missteps have come thanks to controversial comments made while deviating from message. 

But the potential weakness could also turn out to be a key asset. 

Those close to Clinton have told The Hill that she is preparing for “multiple Trumps,” an acknowledgement that they aren’t quite sure who will be standing across the stage from her.  

“That’s the big unknown here, and it’s a case where it’s making her prep a little bit harder because she’s got to prepare for different versions of Trump—subdued Trump, aggressive Trump,” MSNBC’s Chuck Todd said Friday on “Andrea Mitchell Reports.” 

“The Trump campaign is enjoying this.” 

Trump’s limited debate experience has also set low expectations for the GOP nominee, expectations the Clinton camp is concerned could make it easier for Trump to come out looking sharp. 

Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri called low expectations “my biggest concern” during a chat with reporters in the days ahead of the debate on the campaign’s plane, according to ABC News.

Multiple experts compared the matchup to the 2000 debate, where a wonky Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreAl Gore: 'This experiment with Trumpism is not going well' Protecting democracy requires action from all of us Poll: Democrat Bredesen leads GOP's Blackburn by 5 points in Tennessee Senate race MORE showed a mastery of policy but rubbed the audience the wrong way as he audibly sighed through George W. Bush’s answers. 

Bush emerged looking competent, compared to the expectations, and significantly more likable than Gore. And ultimately, he edged out the sitting vice president. 

“You have a very similar contest here,” Birdsell said. 

“You have a candidate not expected to be able to talk about policy facing one expected to do an absolutely bang up job. The one who did an OK job could up being seen as the winner because he didn’t just flame out entirely.”