Bethesda — Donald Trump’s struggling US presidential campaign is increasingly pinning his re-election on the claim that Joe Biden is mentally unfit for the job — and is looking towards the presidential debates as an opportunity to goad the 78-year-old Democrat nominee into a gaffe that will sink his rising poll numbers.

Biden is enjoying front-runner status but has accomplished that largely with a highly scripted campaign. Though the coronavirus pandemic has ended the informal glad-handing with voters and parrying with reporters that Biden relishes, it has also protected him from his own famously runaway tongue. The Trump campaign says more debates will put Biden’s age on display.

“It’s pretty obvious that Joe Biden’s handlers are afraid to send their candidate out without a script and teleprompter handy. An earlier and longer debate schedule is necessary so Americans can see the clear difference between Trump’s vibrant leadership and Biden’s confused meandering,” campaign spokesperson Tim Murtagh said. “It’s not a question of trusting Biden to answer the phone at 3am in an emergency, it’s a question of whether he can answer it at 3 in the afternoon.”

Nevertheless, Biden has committed to debate Trump for the three scheduled debates set up by the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

Before the coronavirus crashed the economy and threatened his re-election, Trump took a take-it-or-leave-it approach to the debates — refusing to agree to the traditional format the commission has sponsored since 2000. “As president, the debates are up to me,” he tweeted inaccurately last December, blasting the commission as “very biased”.

Now, Trump wants a lot of debates. It’s just not clear how many.

“I will do any amount of debates,” Trump told Fox News in June. “I’ll do the three, and I’ll do any amount that they want. It doesn’t make any difference to me.”

Trump describes Biden as “sleepy”, “weak”, and “senile”, and said recently that a one-hour interview would leave the former vice-president “crying for mommy”. He has also said Biden would fail a cognitive ability test that Trump, 74, says he passed.

Setting expectations

Biden has avoided frequent news conferences or other situations that could cause him to stutter, say something out of touch — like his reference to “record players” in a primary debate — or mangle his facts, like referring to millions of Covid-19 deaths rather than cases, as he has several times.

But Biden’s campaign says they’re ready for a face-off and Trump is the one stalling.

“If they are as eager to get vice-president Biden into a debate as they say they are, then maybe the first thing they should do is start by accepting the three debates that have been proposed by the commission, because that’s something they haven’t done yet,” Biden campaign spokesperson TJ Ducklo said.

Underlying the Trump debate gambit is that his campaign insists the 2020 election is not a referendum on his first term, but instead about the dangers of electing Biden. They say they want to show that by putting the two men side by side.

“It’s the chance that the Trump campaign needs to make the race about Trump versus Biden,” said Brett O’Donnell, a Republican who has prepared George W Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney for debates. “People know the name Joe Biden. I don’t think people really know what Joe Biden stands for policy-wise.”

Besides saying he’s too old, the Trump camp has been portraying Biden as a “radical left” candidate who would abolish law enforcement and endanger the “American way of life”.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who helped prepare Trump for debates in 2016, said abortion was a key issue in 2016 and would be again in 2020.

Ducklo declined to discuss the Biden campaign’s debate preparation or strategy.

Debate prep

Leading the Biden debate team are Michael Sheehan, who has helped coach Democrat presidential candidates since 1988; and Ron Klain, the former Biden chief of staff and Ebola tsar in the Obama White House.

Conway wouldn’t say who will fill that role for Trump this year. “We’ll see who’s involved this time, because victory has a lot of fathers and mothers,” she said.

Philippe Reines, who played Trump in mock debates with Hillary Clinton in 2016, said Biden should be aggressive in emphasising that those same qualities are bigger liabilities for Trump.

“The easiest thing to do is to not respond, to take the high road — which I hope most people now realise no longer works,” he said. “One of the Trump theories of the campaign is that they’re losing because Biden isn’t out there and making mistakes. Let’s just stipulate that in 90 minutes, Joe Biden would make a couple mistakes. In 90 minutes Trump would make two dozen.”

Even Republicans such as O’Donnell are worried about how Trump is playing the expectations game. “I think the Trump campaign has to be very careful that you can’t set the bar so low that all Joe Biden has to do is stand up and not fall down during the debate so as to come out a winner,” he said.

Democrats are encouraging Biden to let Trump be Trump.

“If there are debates, Biden should give one-word answers and yield the time back” to Trump, former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart tweeted.

Reines agreed, saying Biden needs to do what he did in a debate in 2008 when moderator Brian Williams asked, “Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, senator?” Biden replied simply, “Yes.”


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