Campaign

Biden’s debate strategy is to let Trump be Trump

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s strategy for the final debate on Thursday evening: Get out of the way. 

Biden and his team believe President Trump has done damage to his own campaign in recent weeks, a sentiment they see as being reflected in national and battleground state polls that show the Democrat with a lead.

Their plan in the final presidential debate is to do nothing more than to underline the contrast between Biden and Trump, and to avoid any mistakes.

“Why would we change anything?” one Biden ally close to the campaign said, when asked if Biden would try to do anything differently from the last debate in September. “We’re going to be prepared to have the kitchen sink thrown at us but the VP needs to continue to do what he’s been doing.” 

Former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said “the pressure is on Trump” given the dynamics of the race, and that there is little reason for Biden to make any changes.

“He’s got to change his persona from the first debate and do something to get the focus off of him and onto the vice president,” Israel said of the president. “All Biden has to do is not let Trump knock him out of his lane: thoughtful, empathetic, steady.” 

Biden has employed a run-out-the-clock strategy, doing just enough to keep his polling numbers stable as they enter the final days of the campaign. Recent polls have shown him ahead in battleground states, and have also given optimism to some Democrats who are hoping the former vice president can win resoundingly.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday showed Biden and Trump tied at 47 percent in Texas, a state that has not voted for a Democrat in the presidential race in decades.

Political observers largely believed Biden won the first debate between the two men, but that he did so by default.

Trump went on the attack throughout their first meeting, seemingly trying to throw Biden off or goad him into a mistake. The president repeatedly interrupted Biden and also battled the debate’s moderator, Fox News’s Chris Wallace.

While Biden was pulled into the insult-fest himself, most Republicans see the debate as having done damage to the president.

At one point, Trump went after Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, over his substance abuse issues. 

Hunter Biden is likely to come up again on Thursday, though perhaps in a way that could help the president more given a controversial New York Post story that led Twitter, for a time, to prevent users from sharing it.

Debates aren’t generally Biden’s strong suit. For starters, even his closest advisers say he can have some difficulty making a point quickly. He also is widely known for making gaffes at inopportune moments. 

Ahead of the first debate, however, Trump lowered expectations for Biden with repeated attacks on his mental acuity. Even with the second debate, many observers say that if the former vice president can clear the stage without fumbling, he’ll win.

“I think the main thing for Biden at this point is to simply show up and get through the event without a major breakdown of some kind,” said Grant Reeher, the director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University.

Most viewers are already locked in with their preferred candidate, Reeher said. “They’re just watching to see the show, or to root on their team, or to see a train wreck, and not to try to figure something out.”

Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, added that Trump “will set the tone of the debate.”

“There is no way around that,” Jillson said. “But it does not need to work to Biden’s disadvantage.

“Like last time, Biden needs to look reasonable and controlled, without letting Trump dominate the process and, where he can, he needs to face the camera and talk to the public in a voice of calm reassurances.”

Basil Smikle, who served as the executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, agreed, saying he expects Trump to act the same way he did during the last debate and the match-ups between Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

“If history is a guide, Trump will flout the rules again and try to browbeat Biden,” Smikle said. “But that behavior comes off as more erratic than strategic. 

“Biden just needs to make a final concise, cogent argument to voters, many of whom may have decided to vote Democratic in the weeks since the last debate.” 

Because 97 percent of the electorate has decided between the two candidates, the final debate doesn’t really matter, Israel said. 

“Unless something epic occurs in the debate, it won’t be much of a factor,” he said. 

Tags Chris Wallace Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Presidential Debate Steve Israel

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