The president has spent months painting Biden as doddering and senile, a move that may have lowered the bar for Biden’s performance in the eyes of many voters who will be seeing him on stage in Cleveland for the first time since the Democratic convention. An even passable performance by the former vice president might come off looking like a win in a debate that has taken on outsize importance after Covid-19 limited the candidates’ in-person campaigning.
“Trump will definitely try to throw the vice president a bunch of curveballs that are designed to get him off his game,” said Jay Carney, who was Biden’s communications director before becoming White House press secretary under President Barack Obama. “The vice president fully expects and is preparing for that and knows that taking that bait is not what he wants to do.”
But if the gaffe-prone Biden stumbles, or looks even a little like the caricature Trump has painted of him, his campaign may be damaged. There are two more presidential debates to go, but first debates — like first impressions — have a way of sticking to candidates.
A good debate performance by Trump at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland could help revive his faltering campaign. He’s trailing Biden by about 7 points nationally, according to an average of polls by RealClearPolitics. Trump, bolstered by his unwavering confidence in his ability to sell himself, has said he’s done little of the traditional preparation for a high-stakes debate. He says his daily back-and-forth with reporters, sometimes two or three times a day, is practice enough. “I sort of prepare every day, by just doing what I’m doing,” Trump said in a Fox News interview this month. “I’ve been all over the place, and I watch this guy sitting home, and I think, maybe I’m doing it wrong.”