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Donald Trump, Joe Biden debate: 5 issues to watch tonight

By Tim Darnell, Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

Here are 5 issues to watch in their first encounter.

President Donald Trump and Democratic White House nominee Joe Biden are making their final preparations for the first of their three scheduled debates, the first set for Tuesday night.

The first debate is planned on the campus shared by Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates said Fox News anchor Chris Wallace will moderate, and the debate will be from 9 to 10:30 p.m. Eastern time. The debate will be broadcast live on NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox, as well as C-SPAN, CNN and Fox News.

In an election year like no other, their first debate could be a pivotal moment in a race that has remained stubbornly unchanged in the face of historic tumult.

The night debate will offer a massive platform for Trump and Biden to outline their different visions for a country facing multiple crises, including racial justice protests and a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs.

Biden will step onto the Cleveland stage holding leads in the polls — significant in the national surveys, closer in the battleground states — but facing questions about his turn in the spotlight. Trump, with only 35 days to change the course of the race, will have arguably his best chance to try to reframe the campaign as a choice election and not a referendum over his handling of the virus.

Trump had told advisers he is preparing an all-out assault on Biden, claiming that the former senator’s 47 years in Washington have left him out of touch and that his family, namely his son Hunter, has benefited from corruption. The president on Monday also repeated his demand that Biden take some sort of drug test, asserting the Democratic nominee was somehow using a performance enhancer.

While Trump’s campaign has of late praised Biden’s debate skills, the president has also vividly portrayed his opponent as not being up to the job, potentially allowing Biden to come off well as long as he avoids a major stumble.

“This guy doesn’t have a clue. He doesn’t know where the hell he is,” Trump said recently, likening the debate to a boxing match and pointing to his head. “To win matches you need that up here. This wins, probably, it’s 50% of it. This is not prime time for Joe.”

Biden’s performances during the primary debates were uneven, and some Democrats have been nervous as to how he will fare in an unscripted setting. But his team views the night as a moment to illuminate Trump’s failings with the pandemic and economy, with the former vice president acting as a “fact checker on the floor” while bracing himself for the onslaught that is coming.

“They’re going to be mostly personal,” Biden said. “That’s the only thing he knows how to do. He doesn’t know how to debate the facts because he’s not that smart. He doesn’t know that many facts.

“I’m prepared to go out and make my case as to why I think he’s failed and why I think the answers I have to proceed will help the American people, the American economy and make us safer internationally,” Biden said Saturday on MSNBC. He also compared Trump with Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, saying, “He’s sort of like Goebbels. You say the lie long enough, keep repeating, repeating, repeating, it becomes common knowledge.”

On Sunday, Trump said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his former 2016 primary rival, Chris Christie, are helping him. “We had a little debate prep before we came here,” Trump told reporters as Giuliani and Christie looked on in the press briefing room at the White House.

Biden’s campaign has been holding mock debate sessions featuring Bob Bauer, a senior Biden adviser and former White House general counsel, playing the role of Trump, according to an anonymous source quoted by The Associated Press.

Here are five issues almost certain to come up during the first presidential debate:

The U.S. Supreme Court. On Saturday, Trump announced Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his U.S. Supreme Court pick to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ginsburg died Sept. 18 at age 87 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Her death left a vacancy on the nation’s highest court and has set off another fierce political battle with only weeks before Americans reelect Trump to another term or replace him with Biden.

Biden and his fellow Democrats have been protesting GOP efforts to replace Ginsburg so close to the November presidential election, saying voters should speak first on Election Day, and the winner of the White House should fill the vacancy. No court nominee in U.S. history has been considered so close to a presidential election.

Democrats are accusing Republicans of hypocrisy, after the GOP-led Senate refused to hold confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland in 2016. Then-President Barack Obama nominated Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia, but the Senate refused to hold confirmation hearings until after the November presidential election.

Coronavirus response. Last week, the U.S. surpassed 200,000 coronavirus-related deaths, by far the highest in the world.

In March, as the coronavirus pandemic began bearing down on the nation, Trump said if the U.S. could keep the death toll between 100,000 to 200,000 people, it would indicate his administration had “done a very good job.”

After revelations in a new book by journalist Bob Woodward that Trump intentionally played down the seriousness of the virus earlier this year, Biden said, “You’ve got to level with the American people — shoot from the shoulder,” adding, “There’s not been a time they’ve not been able to step up.”

Trump has insisted he wasn’t downplaying the severity of the virus when he compared it with the seasonal flu and undercut public health officials who pushed for more stringent mitigation efforts.

Trump continues promising a coronavirus vaccine will be approved within weeks. “We will deliver a safe and effective vaccine before the end of the year, and it could be very, very soon. It could be very, very soon,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Mosinee, Wisconsin.

“I trust vaccines, I trust scientists, but I don’t trust Donald Trump,” Biden said after receiving a briefing on COVID-19. Trump responded by accusing Biden of pushing “anti-vaccine theories.”

In May, the president announced “Operation Warp Speed,” a project to accelerate vaccine development and deliver 300 million doses by year’s end. The government has selected eight vaccine candidates for the program, beginning manufacturing of the shots even while they remain in clinical trials with the expectation that one or more will work.

America’s economy. The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell last week to 860,000, still a historically high number of people that illustrates the broad economic damage still taking place nine months after the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the U.S.

The Labor Department said U.S. jobless claims fell by 33,000 from the previous week and that 12.6 million are collecting traditional unemployment benefits, compared with 1.7 million a year ago.

The pandemic has delivered a colossal shock to the economy. Until the pandemic upended the operations of American companies, from factories to family diners, weekly jobless aid applications had never exceeded 700,000 in the U.S. They’ve topped 700,000 for 26 consecutive weeks.

The overall economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, collapsed at an annual rate of 31.7% from April through June, by far the worst three months on record, as millions of jobs disappeared.

Who’s better suited for the Oval Office? Trump and his reelection campaign continue degrading Biden’s mental acuity, portraying the 77-year-old Democrat as having lost the capacity to speak or think. Recently, however, Trump has been commending Biden and told Fox News he thinks Biden is “going to do great” in their first debate.