Five things to watch in the final presidential debate
President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will get one last chance to make their cases to voters on the debate stage on Thursday night.
The second and final debate of the 2020 presidential race will be moderated by NBC News’s Kristen Welker and will take place in Nashville, Tenn. It’s the first presidential debate to feature a new rule that will allow organizers to cut the candidates’ microphones at certain times.
Trump is heading into the debate down in the polls and with little time remaining to turn around his floundering reelection bid. Biden, meanwhile, is seeking to hold onto his lead and will almost certainly look to keep the focus Thursday night on Trump and his record in the White House.
Here are five things to watch for in the final presidential debate of 2020:
Does Trump change tactics?
Trump has so far spent the final weeks of the 2020 presidential race airing personal grievances and attacking political rivals. But with his poll numbers sagging both nationally and in battleground states, Thursday night’s debate offers him a chance to change up his strategy.
His aides have already signaled that they want him to use the debate to challenge Biden on foreign policy and spotlight allegations regarding his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings.
But Trump isn’t a politician known for staying on message, and many of the topics slated to come up at the debate — the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and race in America, among them — have sparked frustration and anger from Trump in the past.
Those are also issues that have proved more harmful than helpful to Trump’s reelection message, with most polls showing that voters trust Biden over Trump to address the pandemic and race relations.
Whether Trump can change his tone on those issues while putting pressure on Biden is one of the biggest questions heading into Thursday night.
How does Biden handle attacks on his son?
Trump and his allies have ramped up their attacks on Hunter Biden in recent weeks, and the president has already signaled that he plans to put allegations that the younger Biden profited from his father’s role as vice president front and center during the debate on Thursday.
It’s not yet clear how Biden will respond to those attacks, though the first presidential debate may offer some clues. During an exchange last month in which Trump pressed Biden over his son’s finances, the former vice president sought to quickly pivot away from the subject.
“This is not about my family or his family,” Biden said. “It’s about your family, the American people.”
Biden and his aides have also indicated that they want to keep the conversation focused on the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, an issue that has proved to be one of the president’s biggest vulnerabilities on the campaign trail.
Still, some Democrats have pointed to Trump’s own adult children, who continue to conduct private business dealings, who both work inside the White House, as fair game for Biden, though it’s unclear whether that’s a road the former vice president is willing to go down.
Will either candidate get cut off?
The first presidential debate was defined by frequent interruptions and cross-talk that quickly turned the event into a bitter and widely criticized free-for-all.
In response, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced this week that it would mute the candidates’ microphones during the beginning of each 15-minute segment of the debate in order to give each two minutes of uninterrupted speaking time.
But that rule doesn’t mean that there won’t be any interruptions. Trump has long shown a willingness to talk over and cut off his opponents and debate moderators, and Welker will almost certainly face intense pressure to try to reel him in throughout the showdown.
Asked in an interview on Monday with WISN-TV in Milwaukee what he thinks of the commission’s decision to give the candidates two minutes of speaking time at the beginning of each segment, Biden praised the idea, but said that there should be more restrictions in play to keep him and Trump from interrupting one another.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Biden said. “I think there should be more limitations on us not interrupting one another.”
Will Trump attack the moderator?
Trump argued frequently with moderator Chris Wallace in the first presidential debate and sparred with NBC News’s Savannah Guthrie during a televised town hall last week, so it’s possible, if not likely, that he may try to do the same with Welker on Thursday.
The president and his allies have leaned into their long-held grievances with the media in recent days.
After his town hall last week, his campaign issued a statement calling Guthrie a “Joe Biden surrogate.” Earlier this week, Trump lashed out at news reports about his current reelection struggles. And on Tuesday, he abruptly ended an interview with CBS News’s “60 Minutes” and said he would post the footage before the program airs “so that everybody can get a glimpse of what a FAKE and BIASED interview is all about.”
Taken together, that suggests that Trump may be looking for a fight with Welker on Thursday night.
Even so, it’s unlikely that attacking the debate moderator will do much for Trump’s standing in the presidential race. Polling conducted in the days after the first debate, in which Trump hectored and attacked both Biden and Wallace, showed that more voters thought Biden had the better performance.
Can this debate be a game changer?
With 12 days to go before Election Day and Trump trailing Biden by an average of about 10 points in national polls, the president is running out of time to turn around his flailing reelection campaign.
The debate on Thursday night will be one of his last chances for a game-changing moment. Whether he can — or even tries to — pull it off, however, remains one of the biggest questions heading into the showdown.
Trump’s campaign has signaled that the president will look to put Biden on the defensive over his foreign policy record, particularly with regard to China, while the former vice president has said that he wants to use the debate to speak directly to the American people about kitchen-table issues, like health care, and Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
But for now, there’s less pressure on Biden. He’s leading in the vast majority of national and battleground state polls, and has largely succeeded in making the 2020 election a referendum on Trump rather than a choice between a Democratic and Republican candidate.