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Confusion clouds remaining presidential debates

An extended back-and-forth between the campaigns threw the presidential debate schedule into chaos Thursday, raising the question: Will there even be another debate?

There are health concerns clouding the future of the potential faceoffs, given the extraordinary situation that one of the candidates, President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump, Jared Kusher's lawyer threatens to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards Facebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' MORE, currently is infected with a contagious and potentially deadly virus.

In addition to the safety concerns, there is also a political standoff between the two campaigns, with a fight over the dates and settings of the two remaining debates.

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After the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates said Thursday that next week’s debate, set for Oct. 15, would be virtual “to protect the health and safety of all involved,” Trump abruptly pulled out, calling it “ridiculous” to “sit behind a computer and do a debate.”

After his campaign then called for revising the debate schedule — one on Oct. 22, as scheduled, and a new one on Oct. 29 — the Biden campaign rejected their proposal, saying it was the president’s choice to pull out of next week’s event.

As for the final debate on Oct. 22, “Donald Trump can show up, or he can decline again. That's his choice,” said Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield in a statement.

“Donald Trump doesn’t make the debate schedule,” Bedingfield added. “We look forward to participating in the final debate, scheduled for October 22, which already is tied for the latest debate date in 40 years.”

A Biden ally doubled down on Bedingfield’s statement, saying Team Biden is committed to participating on Oct. 22 but they won’t be open to negotiating a third debate.

“Look, we wanted to do another debate,” one Biden ally said. “We said OK to doing one, but we wanted to do it virtually because the president has COVID. I don’t think anyone would fault us for that. Any reasonable person would understand why.”

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“We’re not going to adjust because we’re dealing with an unreasonable person.”

On Thursday night, Trump's campaign released another statement, calling on the debate commission to reverse course and allow the Oct. 15 debate to be held in person instead of virtually, citing a memo from Trump's doctor saying he will be cleared for events starting Saturday. 

Biden is winning the horse race to date. A Fox News poll out on Thursday showed that he has a 10 percentage point national lead over Trump. He is also ahead of Trump in traditionally Republican states like Arizona. And political observers say he’s not in a position where he needs to change up the state of the race.

Political observers say that is exactly why Biden doesn’t feel compelled to partake in another debate.

“Trump needs the debates,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “He needs to draw a contrast with Biden. He’s checkmated a little bit.”

On the other hand, “there’s not much in it for Biden other than just more exposure,” Payne added. “If you’re Joe BidenJoe BidenFacebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' Senate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus MORE you don’t need it anyway.”

As for the question of safety, experts said the commission was erring on the side of safety by saying next week’s debate would be virtual, even though it is possible that Trump might no longer be infectious by then.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people with “mild or moderate” cases of COVID-19 remain infectious no longer than 10 days after symptoms begin, a bar that Trump would clear by Thursday, given his symptoms appear to have started around Oct. 1.

However, for “severe” cases of COVID-19, people can remain infectious up to 20 days after symptoms start, which would mean Trump could still be infectious next week if he falls into that category.

The Oct. 22 debate is safer in terms of Trump’s health risk to others, but experts still raised concerns about whether his staff could be infectious, given the ongoing outbreak in the White House.

“I worry as much, probably even more, about staff members,” said Eric Toner, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Experts said the debates can be made much safer by testing everyone beforehand, spacing people out, ensuring mask-wearing and having good ventilation in the auditorium.

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But the series of positive cases among White House staffers complicates the picture, said Donald Thea, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.

“If the president and his entourage weren’t infected, I would say probably those precautions would be sufficient,” Thea said. “It’s entirely possible that one of the members of the president’s team is incubating or harboring an infection now.”

Toner said a future debate could be made “relatively safe” if precautions are taken, but the “safest thing” is to hold it virtually.

“There’s no reason for them to be together,” he said.