NASHVILLE — President Donald Trump has some ground to make up in the final campaign debate Thursday against Democrat Joe Biden after a widely panned performance in a face-off days before he tested positive for coronavirus and ended up in the hospital.
But rather than spend much time preparing, Trump has been angrily complaining at daily rallies that the deck is stacked against him. He claims the moderator, NBC’s Kristen Welker, won’t treat him fairly, that the topics aren’t to his liking and that a decision to mute the microphones at times when the other candidate is speaking is unfair.
Biden has been out of the public eye so far this week to prepare for the debate.
Trump’s campaign is looking for a way to draw new support — or depress the vote for Biden. The former vice president, meanwhile, needs to do no harm at the debate to keep voters on his side and ward off a round of last-minute Democratic panic.
The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates took steps to avoid a repeat of the chaos at the first debate on Sept. 29 when Trump consistently interrupted Biden and spoke over him, blowing through the timing rules the campaigns had meticulously negotiated with the commission.
Now, each candidate will have two minutes of uninterrupted time to speak at the beginning of each of the debate’s six segments while their opponent’s microphone will be muted. The forum will begin at 9 p.m. New York time from Nashville and last for 90 minutes.
Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the commission, told MSNBC that the plan to mute microphones was done to ensure the campaigns follow the rules they agreed to.
“If you watch the first debate, you’re — easy to see that those rules were not followed even though they agreed to it,” Fahrenkopf said. “We didn’t touch the rules — all we did is put in a situation where, if someone is interrupting, they won’t be allowed to interrupt.”
Biden, known for his own long-winded answers, told a Wisconsin television station on Tuesday that he didn’t object to the mute function.
“I think it’s a good idea. I think there should be more limitations on us not interrupting.”
Trump heads into the night trailing Biden by 8.6 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average. He’s also behind in polling of most battleground states, though often so narrowly that it’s a virtual tie, particularly in Florida, a state both candidates need to win.
Presidential campaigns usually have three general election debates but Thursday’s will be the second and final. After Trump’s hospitalization for COVID-19 and with the next debate only 14 days after his positive test result, the commission decided to make the Oct. 15 forum virtual. Trump refused to participate and the two candidates instead held dueling televised town halls from different cities. The combined ratings for the two programs drew a fraction of the viewership that a debate normally attracts.
“You have one more debate that’s been heightened because the second one didn’t occur. Debates matter,” said David Winston, a veteran Republican strategist.
While Trump and his allies claimed victory after the first debate, internal Republican polling showed that Biden’s lead widened after the Sept. 29 debate, before narrowing slightly again. Biden also raised $21.5 million the following day.
Even former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Trump debate coach, said the president was “too hot. With all that heat, you lose the light,” he said immediately after the debate.
But some Trump allies see a way for Trump to regain his campaign footing.
“The pressure is on the candidate that’s behind, if you believe that Donald Trump is truly behind,” said Republican strategist Charlie Gerow, a Trump supporter. “If he picks up the undecided and persuadable voters that he needs it goes a long way towards assuring his election. In that regard, taking the case to Joe Biden, which nobody has really effectively done, is very, very important.”
Biden allies are hoping he repeats his performance of the first debate, when he spoke when possible directly to the camera, ignoring Trump.
“I’m hoping to see from Vice President Biden what we saw in the first debate. Very steady, expert leadership with an actual plan for the pandemic and for a road to recovery,” said Patti Solis Doyle, Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign manager. “The last debate was a very clear choice between chaotic leadership versus a steady hand and I am hoping that will again be illustrated on Thursday night.”