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The choice: It's competence vs. chaos

The choice: It's competence vs. chaos

One of the biggest mistakes the Trump campaign has made is letting President Trump back-out of the second presidential debate. It led to Thursday’s dueling town halls – Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally MORE on ABC and Trump on NBC – and, consequently, to the devastating comparison that emerged.

After four years of a presidency that collectively raised the blood pressure of Americans, and during which our psyches suffered imminently more stress than before Trump became president, the country is looking for a leader who is not only capable, smart, policy-minded and dedicated, but also someone who exudes serenity, confidence and a sense of security. 

Former Vice President Biden has been widely criticized by Trump and his supporters as boring and slow. Trump’s nickname for Biden is “Sleepy Joe.” The goal is to portray Biden as incoherent and unexciting. Democrats even had misgivings about Biden’s ability to mobilize voters to his side and get them excited to vote for him. 

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It turns out that what Biden needed most was exactly what Trump had been giving the American people for the past four years – unbridled chaos and a yearning for a return to normalcy.

The first debate started to do the trick. Trump came across as unhinged, and even his campaign acknowledged that he hurt himself with his performance. Then Trump contracted COVID-19 and, as he was recovering, backed out of the second debate because it had been changed to a virtual format by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

In its place, the dueling town halls placed in even sharper relief what each candidate offers the country. Trump was unsure and wavering in his answers, could not say whether he had been tested for COVID before the first debate and would not condemn the QAnon conspiracy. And, of course, Trump served up his usual massive doses of lies and conspiracy theories.

In striking contrast, if you flipped over to Biden’s town hall, you heard long, deeply personal answers that displayed an empathy and an emotion absent from the current commander in chief.  Voters heard winding answers that were full of detail and context. Biden also produced a vision of how he would lead as president and the values that would inform his leadership.

Contrary to the cheap shots Trump supporters kept trying to sling, Biden did not get off easy. Moderator George StephanopoulosGeorge Robert StephanopoulosThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Tipping point week for Trump, Biden, Congress, voters Pelosi: White House made 'unacceptable changes' to testing language during negotiations on coronavirus stimulus Infectious disease expert calls White House advisers herd immunity claims 'pseudoscience' MORE asked him tough questions about the Supreme Court, whether he would engage in court-packing, whether he supported fracking. Biden was also asked about his support for the 1994 Crime bill

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But Biden answered every question with deliberate purpose, knowledge and empathy.

During the town hall showdown, I saw several tweets from people saying that just watching Biden lowered their blood pressure. Whenever I turned to Trump, my heart raced, and then when I turned it back to Biden, a calm came over me. Both feelings were visceral. 

Republican pollster Frank Luntz focused-grouped undecided voters who felt that the more Trump spoke, the worse he looked. 

At one point, Trump campaign senior adviser Mercedes Schlapp tweeted that watching the Biden town hall was like watching an episode of “Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood.”

That is probably a tweet she regrets. Inadvertently, Schlapp crystallized the choice Americans have before them this election. And it is a simple one: competence, clarity and calm versus chaos, chaos and still more chaos. 

Maria Cardona is a longtime Democratic strategist and was co-chair of the Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws committee for the party's 2020 convention. She is a principal at Dewey Square Group, a Washington-based political consulting agency, and a CNN/CNN Español political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTCardona.