The first, and likely most important, debate of the presidential campaign is tonight.

The stakes are high, even though most every voter seems to have made up his or her mind who they’re supporting. It could be, though, those few who haven’t decided or go back and forth will make the difference on Nov. 3. The estimates of undecided or those who can change their mind ranges from 3 percent to about 10 percent in various polls. Enough to sway what most experts expect to be a close election.

The candidates appear to have different styles for preparing. Former Vice President Joe Biden is doing traditional preparation with mock debates. President Trump is doing his unique version — no specific prep but his job, as he says, and being asked questions by staff, and media as the debate nears.

Some thoughts:

Trump’s taxes. While not listed as a topic for debate, hard to ignore the New York Times’ reporting that Trump, unsurprisingly but previously not documented, hadn’t paid taxes for many years and the last couple of tax years he paid $750. That puts his contribution to the federal government closer to the 44 percent of Americans who pay no taxes than to the average American household. The reason that 44 percent pays no taxes is because they don’t earn enough. Not so with Trump. Trump so far went from calling the reporting “fake news” to saying the Times got the paperwork illegally, which it did not. We’ll see which answer he settles on tonight.

Fact-checking. There is debate among those of us who have nothing whatsoever to do with the debates, other than to witness them, as to what each candidate’s strategy should be. Should Biden fact check Trump on the spot? Should Fox’ Chris Wallace, the moderator, fact check both candidates live? Doing that would likely eat up a lot of time and give Trump the excuse he needs to talk about anything but the pandemic. I expect that when blatant lies are told, moderator Chris Wallace will have some tactic to call it out because he is, at heart, a reporter. But overall, I think the fact-checking will be left to the post-debate shows and news articles and columns.

Strategies. If there are two thing we know about Donald Trump, it’s that he likes to call people childish names and he likes to talk about anything but what he was asked about. Biden shouldn’t get dragged into that. Biden needs to talk pandemic, the threat to Obamacare raised by Trump’s recent Supreme Court nomination, a staggering economy. Plus Biden has a built in BS response through his “C’mon, man” verbal tick. I expect we’ll hear more than one of those. It’s a little like President Reagan’s “there you go again” which poked fun/mockery and allowed him to make his points.

If there’s another thing we know about Donald Trump it’s that he never apologizes, never admits when he’s wrong and always attacks. He doesn’t prepare in any detail for such events, depending instead on his “stable genius” to get him through debates. When asked during the 2016 campaign, for example, where he gets his foreign policy advice he responded “from the (Sunday) shows.”

Trump likely will parry any attacks with offense, not defense. He also will try to bring Biden’s family into his answers, in an effort to bait Biden. I’m sure Biden’s advisors have been working with him on his knee-jerk (and understandable) reaction which is to defend his family and display honest anger. Still, Biden is the one on stage and we’ll see how he reacts.

Humor. Biden likely will employ humor, it’s part of his personality. Trump never seems to joke. In fact he’s admitted “I don’t joke.” Biden must use humor sparingly, though, and constantly focus on the pandemic. Many advise Biden to use humor and ridicule to respond to Trump. Fair enough, but you can’t over do that or it loses its effect.

Outside advice. Philip Reines, who played Trump in mock debates for Hillary Clinton, suggests Biden early in the debate work in a statement such as: “C’mon, Mr. President. Everyone that knows that whatever you call fake is real. Whatever you call a lie is the truth. Whatever you accuse others of doing is what you’ve done. And whatever you make fun of me by saying by accident only services to deflect what you say on purpose.” Get out ahead of Trump, in other words. Make his responses look, as they are, non-responsive and a reflection of his lack of knowledge or admitted lack of study of the issues. He repeatedly has said his decisions are guided by “his gut.”

Questions to be asked? Only Wallace knows what questions he’ll ask. A couple I’d ask:

  • Mr. President, at first you said the Times’ reporting on your taxes was “fake news.” The next day you said the Times got hold of the document’s “illegally.” Which is it?
  • Mr. Biden, it’s said that you have wanted to be President since at least your 20s. Now, if elected you’d be the oldest person ever to serve as President. The President has accused you of being on performance-enhancing drugs and not mentally or physically up to the job. What confidence can you give the American public that you are up to the job at your age? (can’t resist, Biden could paraphrase Reagan and say, “well, we’ve seen what youth and inexperience gives us over the last three years.”)
  • Mr. President, you say that you and your Administration have done the best job possible in response to the pandemic. More than 200,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus. Millions more have had or have it. And the numbers are rising again. Why should Americans believe you especially when your position flies in the face of disease and vaccine expert?
  • Mr. Biden, if you’re son was paid billions of dollars by foreigners as Mr. Trump alleges, shouldn’t you be wearing a better suit? Okay, I obviously am kidding about that last one.

The first in the series of presidential debates typically is the most important and the one that can move poll numbers. This year may be different because Trump’s approval rating and his position in most polls has remained basically the same throughout the campaign and, in fact, throughout his presidency.

Biden is over 50 percent in many of those polls, a difficult number to reduce.

Expect Trump to literally throw even the kitchen sink in tonight to try to crack into Biden’s lead. Expect a surprise too. Trump likes doing that. Plus, when he had his Rose Garden pandemic briefing yesterday, he took no questions. I could be wrong, but I’m thinking that’s because he has an answer to the tough questions but he’s saving it for the bigger audience tonight.

Expect Biden to be watched carefully to see if his temper gets the better of him in the face of what will be an onslaught from Trump, and if he looks fatigued by the end.

Also, expect to get to bed late tonight.

Written by

Former deputy White House press secretary (Reagan and Bush 41) and former head of communications at Republican Natl Committee. My blog: bjaycooper.com.

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