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The Memo: Trump between rock and hard place on debates

President TrumpDonald TrumpNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 MORE is running out of chances to turn around a reelection campaign he appears to be losing.

The latest problem for the president is the question-mark that now hangs over the remaining debates with Democratic rival Joe BidenJoe BidenNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors Biden celebrates vaccine approval but warns 'current improvement could reverse' MORE.

After a day of back-and-forth between Trump's and Biden's campaigns, the picture remained unclear on Thursday evening.

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Trump declined to participate in a second debate, scheduled for Miami on Oct. 15, after the Commission on Presidential Debates announced on Thursday morning that it would be virtual rather than in-person. 

The Biden campaign then suggested that the town hall format of the Miami debate should instead be used on Oct. 22, when a third and final debate had been scheduled in Nashville, Tenn.

Then it was back to Team Trump, which appeared to accept that proposal so long as yet another debate was added on Oct. 29, just five days before Election Day. The Biden team refused. The impasse has not yet been broken.

The difficulty for Trump, as the author of “The Art of the Deal” surely knows, is that he has no real leverage.

Biden has a large lead in surveys — he was up almost 10 points over Trump in the RealClearPolitics national polling index on Thursday evening — giving the Democrat no particular incentive to do extra debates. It is Trump who needs the game-changer that the televised clashes could provide. 

Trump, of course, defied polls and predictions to win the presidency in the first place in 2016. But his position now is worse than it was then, in part because of the scale of the deficit he faces, and also because Biden has led by meaningful margins for the duration of the campaign.

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Asked how deep a hole Trump was in, former Republican National Committee communications director Doug Heye replied, “It looks pretty deep. We all know it was deep this time four years ago, when the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape came out, but this time it appears deeper, in key states and in more states.”

Heye pointed out that Trump faces other problems, too. Regular campaigning is constrained by the coronavirus outbreak, depriving Trump of the ability to do as many large rallies as he did in 2016, even if he were healthy. Biden, meanwhile, does not suffer from the high negative ratings that afflicted 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMedia circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Senate ref axes minimum wage, House votes today on relief bill Democratic strategists start women-run media consulting firm MORE.

The Trump campaign for the moment appears to be banking on a siege mentality. The president and his aides have ramped up efforts to portray themselves as victims of bias and political chicanery.

The commission overseeing the debates is “trying to protect Biden. Everybody is,” Trump said in a Thursday morning interview with Maria BartiromoMaria Sara BartiromoGaetz suggests DeSantis could run for president in 2024 if Trump is out of the picture Bartiromo, Pirro, Dobbs file to dismiss Smartmatic lawsuits Fox News labels .7B Smartmatic defamation suit 'meritless' in motion to dismiss MORE of Fox Business Network.

The president made the remarks soon after the commission had announced the idea of a virtual debate, only for Trump to say that he would not “waste my time” with such an event.

Trump is presumed to favor in-person debates because they make it easier to take the aggressive approach that is his trademark. Virtual debates make interruptions more difficult, and would also enable a moderator to mute Trump entirely.

A statement from Trump campaign manager Bill StepienBill StepienTrump likely to form new super PAC Trump ready to make McConnell's life miserable State parties seek to punish anti-Trump Republicans MORE — who, like the president, was recently diagnosed with COVID-19 — sang a similar tune.

“The American people should not be deprived of the chance to see the two candidates for president debate face to face two more times just because the Commission on Presidential Debates wants to protect Joe Biden,” Stepien said.

But, as with so much else during this campaign, Trump and his allies have made versions of this argument many times before — usually when claiming the news media are biased against the president.

Trump’s MAGA base buys the idea, but there is precious little sign that the messaging works to boost the president’s level of support to an election-winning level. In the dozen most recent national polls collated by RealClearPolitics, Trump has only once exceeded 45 percent support.

The president’s performance in the first debate with Biden, on Sept. 29 in Cleveland, was widely criticized for lack of substance and rudeness. 

Vice President Pence appeared to do better in his sole clash with Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisDwayne 'The Rock' Johnson vs. Donald Trump: A serious comparison Exclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren To unite America, Biden administration must brace for hate MORE (D-Calif.), in Salt Lake City on Wednesday evening, but there was no major moment likely to change the trajectory of the race. 

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The president is trying to improvise his way forward, with new measures such as a “virtual rally” with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, set for Friday.

Limbaugh has a huge listenership but it seems unlikely, given the vehemence of the host’s opinions, that many of them are undecided voters.

The clock keeps ticking down for Trump, and his situation looks bleaker by the day.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.