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Viewers' Guide: What to watch for during presidential debate

Michelle Price with the Associated Press contributed


JACKSONVILLE, FLa. – In an election year like no other, the first debate between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, could be a pivotal moment in the race for the White House.

Ahead of the debate, there’s controversy over nominating a new Supreme Court justice. There’s also back-and-forth underway concerning a New York Times report on Trump’s taxes, saying he has paid less than a thousand dollars in recent years.

Biden’s campaign is capitalizing on the report. His website is selling vinyl stickers that read: “I paid more income taxes than Donald Trump.” The New York Times also reported Trump lost more than $315 million at his golf clubs since 2000.

President Trump has denied the report, but hasn’t specified what was inaccurate.

“This has the potential of being one of the most watched debates in the history of the country,” said News4Jax political analyst Rick Mullaney.

He continued, “Joe Biden most certainly tomorrow (Tuesday) night will bring up the tax returns. He will go after the president. He will try to bait the president. The president will take the bait, and he will talk about it quite a bit he always does. Each of them will have in their arsenal, a number of things prepared for the other side. Each of them will be seeking that moment, that comment that captures the American public’s attention.”

Mullaney said the hot topics will be front and center, but that it’s tough to know who the debate could ultimately favor and how many voters will be influenced.

“I expect the president could very well be going after Joe Biden and Hunter Biden on the Ukraine, don’t be surprised to see that. So, each side will be armed to go after the other. It could be a brawl tomorrow night. If history is any indication, very much, it could be very hard fought,” Mullaney said.

News4Jax spoke with Dean Black, head of the Duval County GOP, about what he expects from the first debate.

“The truth is President Trump has accomplished more in 47 months than Biden has in 47 years," Black said. “We expect to see a great contrast in those voters who are undecided, We think it’s going to have an impact on them, and it’s also going to cause a lot of people to rethink their support for Joe Biden.”

Daniel Henry, chair of the Duval Democratic Party, said the enthusiasm is evident.

“I think there are a lot of people that are still making their decision. We have a lot of break out, Republicans and NPAs that are still on the fence that are going to be a major factor in states like Florida and counties like Duval. So Vice President Biden will give them a plan and a message that will resonate with them,” Henry said.

Mullaney said the issue of the president’s Supreme Court nomination will probably be the very first topic of the debate and looms as a huge subject for voters. He expects Trump to push Biden to name the person he would nominate if he were president.

The debate, starting at 9 p.m. Eastern Time in Cleveland, is the first of three between Trump and Biden. You can watch live on Channel 4 or right here on News4Jax.com.

Here’s what to watch:

SUPREME COURT

A fast-track push by Republicans to fill the Supreme Court seat held by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg is roiling an already deeply divided Washington and will likewise be a flashpoint during the debate. Both Democrats and Republicans believe the confirmation battle might energize their voters and shape a court that could decide major issues such as health care, abortion access and possibly even the outcome of the November election.

Biden has so far not heeded Trump’s call to release a list of potential court nominees, as the president did before naming Amy Coney Barrett as his choice to replace Ginsburg. Biden has focused on how the makeup of the court could threaten President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

CORONAVIRUS

The president’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to be a central focus. More than 200,000 people have died from the coronavirus in the U.S. while everyday life remains jumbled and many schools and businesses are still shuttered. The president has defended his response to the outbreak, frequently pointing to his move to restrict travel from China in February.

But the president and his backers have routinely dismissed experts' analysis of the seriousness of the outbreak and measures to rein it in. A new book from journalist Bob Woodward revealed the president acknowledged intentionally playing down the seriousness of the virus earlier this year.

Biden and Democrats have keyed in on the president’s coronavirus response throughout the campaign, and the former vice president is expected to keep it front and center Tuesday.

CLASS (AND TAX BILL) CONTRASTS

Biden, who frequently highlights his working-class upbringing, has increasingly cast the election as a campaign “between Scranton and Park Avenue,” referring to his own childhood home in Pennsylvania and Trump’s adult life as a Manhattan businessman.

Biden is likely to turbocharge that argument Tuesday in the wake of a bombshell New York Times report on the president’s shrouded tax history, including that he paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and nothing in many other years.

Biden’s line of attack aims to cut into Trump’s support among white working-class voters, particularly in Rust Belt states that helped him win the presidency in 2016.

TACTICS AND STYLE

Trump, a former reality show star, is at ease on camera and has skipped formal debate preparation. He often leapfrogs to friendlier talking points like the confirmation of judges or “law and order,” favors derisive nicknames and withering attacks, and at times employs a dizzying number of false statements and misrepresentations.

Biden’s performances during the Democratic primary debates were uneven and played a role in his early struggles in polling and primary contests. With decades in politics, he’s also got more experience as a debater than the president. Biden has promised to be a “fact-checker” as he stands side-by-side with Trump but also says he doesn’t want to get sucked into a “brawl.” Look for the Democrat to walk a line between contrasting himself with the president and challenging the man who may continue his campaign attacks on Biden’s mental and physical stamina or his family.

MODERATOR AND FORMAT

The debate will be moderated by Fox News' Chris Wallace, who has a reputation as a straight shooter. Wallace moderated a presidential debate in 2016, favoring direct questions to get the candidates talking. He said before the 2016 debate that he did not believe it is his job “to be a truth squad,” and he largely stayed away from interjecting to fact-check the candidates.

The format for Tuesday’s debate consists of six 15-minute segments, scheduled to focus on the following topics, selected by Wallace: “The Trump and Biden Records,” “The Supreme Court,” “COVID-19,” “The Economy,” “Race and Violence in our Cities” and “The Integrity of the Election.”

Each candidate will be given two minutes to respond to a question from the moderator opening the segment. Candidates will then be able to respond to each other, and the moderator will use the rest of the 15-minute period to discuss the topic further.

SAFETY PRECAUTIONS

Amid the customs and routines upended by the coronavirus will be the customary display of civility before the debate: Trump and Biden are not expected to shake hands at the opening. They will each be stationed at podiums spaced far apart and are expected to have a limited, socially distanced audience.


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