(AP) — President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden hurtled toward Thursday night’s final debate, which could be the trailing incumbent’s best chance to change the race’s trajectory with just 12 days left until the election.
The Nashville debate offered their final national stage to outline starkly different visions for a country in the grips of a surging pandemic that has killed more than 225,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs. Despite the historic tumult, the race has remained largely unchanged with Biden holding advantages in many battleground states while Trump faces a shortage of campaign cash and, crucially, time.
Worried that Trump could lose the White House and cost Republicans the Senate, some advisers urged him to trade his aggressive demeanor from the first debate for a lower-key style and put the spotlight on Biden, whom he derides as “Sleepy Joe.” But Trump made no such promise.
Biden, who has stepped off the campaign trail for several days in favor of debate prep, expects Trump to get intensely personal. The former vice president and his inner circle see the president’s approach chiefly as an effort to distract from the coronavirus, its economic fallout, and other crises of Trump’s term.
“Hopefully he’ll play by the rules,” Biden said as he boarded his plane for Tennessee. “I’m looking forward to this.”
Final debates often play an outsized role in electoral outcomes. But Thursday night’s showdown will be different from that past.
More than 46 million people have already cast their ballots as part of a pandemic-era rise in early voting. In an election dominated by a polarizing president, far fewer undecided voters remain than at this point in 2016.
In a visual reminder of the pandemic that has rewritten the norms of American society and fundamentally changed the campaign, sheets of plexiglass had been installed onstage Wednesday between the two men. But in the hours before the debate, they were removed.
The debate, moderated by NBC’s Kristen Welker, is a final chance for each man to make his case to a television audience of tens of millions of voters. And questions swirled as to how Trump, whose hectoring performance at the first debate was viewed by aides as a mistake that turned off viewers, would perform amid a stretch of the campaign in which he has taken angry aim at the news media and unleashed deeply personal attacks on Biden and his adult son.
In an effort to curtail interruptions this time, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that Trump and Biden would each have his microphone cut off while his rival delivered an opening two-minute answer to each of six debate topics.
The mute button won’t figure in the open discussion portion of the debate.