Trump's debate move carries risks in final stretch
President Trump is taking a big risk by scuttling next week’s presidential debate against Democratic nominee Joe Biden, leaving the president with fewer opportunities to change the trajectory of a race that has moved swiftly against him. Trump is furious at the Commission on Presidential Debates for unilaterally deciding next week’s event would be virtual, rather than in-person, due to concerns about the coronavirus after the president’s diagnosis last week.
Trump and his campaign believe that Biden would wilt under the pressure of a live, high-stakes event and believe the shift to a virtual event is bailing him out.
At the moment, Trump plans to hold a rally with supporters next Thursday at a time when Biden has built a formidable lead in the national polls and in the battleground states that will determine the outcome of the election.
The Trump campaign has proposed delaying the final two debates by one week, but the Biden campaign has refused, keeping the second debate in doubt. Biden has booked his own town hall event with ABC for next Thursday. The commission has remained silent on Trump’s objections and the ensuing squabble between both campaigns on the debate schedule.
Trump badly needs to expand his support beyond the fervent base of true believers who attend or watch his campaign events. Debates are far and away the best opportunities for that, and now Trump will get only one more opportunity to face Biden on the big stage, assuming that event takes place as scheduled in two weeks.
Trump has seen his poll numbers slide dramatically since the first presidential debate and his diagnosis, raising concerns among Republicans that he could be headed for a landslide loss that also costs the GOP their majority in the Senate.
The president, who has been off the campaign trail for COVID-19 treatment over the past week, has only 26 days to turn it around.
“He needs an inflection point. He needs to change the trajectory of this race and the two remaining debates were the last bite at the apple,” said Colin Reed, a Republican strategist, who said he understood Trump’s frustration that the debate could not be in-person with proper health protocols in place next week. “It puts him in a tough spot.”
Some allies were frustrated with the campaign’s decision to immediately cancel, saying they should have first pursued every avenue to reschedule a live event.
“I don’t see the upside of a virtual debate but I don’t see the upside of doing a rally either,” said one Republican close to the campaign. “I wish they’d have tried to appeal this because it’s ridiculous to change the format before we even know whether he would have tested positive again before the debate.”
But after a performance in the first debate that was roundly criticized by members of Trump’s own party, some argue that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the second debate might not be a bad move.
One Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity argued that, unless Trump shifted his tact from the first debate, “it’s a net positive that he is not participating.”
The person also said polling suggested that undecided voters were not fans of Trump’s performance in the first debate.
“I can’t imagine they would like him any more after a potential repeat performance over a Zoom call,” the strategist said.
Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh said the campaign was completely caught off guard. The commission did not respond to a question about whether they consulted the campaigns or gave them a head's up before the announcement.
“This was a decision they made without consultation with our campaign but it’s in line with their history of doing everything they can to protect Joe Biden,” said Murtaugh.
Trump is notoriously fickle and could change his mind before next week’s debate. Some aides were quick to urge him to soften his position and lay the groundwork for a reversal.
Both White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow and the vice president’s chief of staff, Marc Short, expressed optimism that the campaigns and the debate commission would come together and reach an agreement that satisfies all parties for next week’s debate.
When pressed, Kudlow told Fox News that he wants to see Trump take part in the debate.
“I do. And I want him on message, and I want him to show the differences between the two teams, as Mike Pence did brilliantly yesterday,” Kudlow said.
But Trump’s campaign believes a virtual debate would be unfair, and on Thursday accused the commission of acting “unilaterally” to help Biden. Trump’s allies speculated that the virtual set-up could allow for Biden to use outside help, like a teleprompter, to make it through the performance.
Trump veered wildly off message on Thursday, calling Fox Business Network to vent his frustration over the debate changes. His appearance overshadowed headlines about Pence’s performance against Sen. Kamala Harris the day prior, which was viewed by Republicans as a success.
The president implied that Biden would die shortly after he is elected, saying “he’s not lasting two months as president.” He called Harris a “monster.” And he ignited another uproar by insinuating that he had been infected with coronavirus by Gold Star families telling him their stories of tragic loss.
"They come within an inch of my face sometimes,” Trump said. “They want to hug me and they want to kiss me. And they do. And frankly, I'm not telling them, 'Back up’,” Trump said.
“It's a dangerous thing, I guess, if you go by the COVID thing,” he added.
The president’s health remains a wild card seven days before the next debate. Trump was adamant in his call with Fox Business that he felt back to his old self, while noting he was still taking the steroid dexamethasone.
But public health experts have noted that the effects of COVID-19 can ebb and flow, particularly for patients like Trump who are older. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends individuals with moderate cases isolate for 10 days from the onset of symptoms, while those with more serious cases avoid interacting with others for up to 20 days.
The Oct. 15 debate is scheduled for two weeks from when the president first tested positive.
Trump famously skipped a Republican primary debate in 2016 amid a tiff with Fox News and did not suffer for it, as his alternative programming received significant media attention.
But there’s no guarantee that strategy would work this time if Biden decided to participate in the town hall without Trump. Seventy-three million people watched the first presidential debate, and Trump would be forfeiting those eyeballs and a chance to shape the narrative in the following days.
“He’s behind Biden. But he was an underdog in 2016, too. It’s an uphill battle the whole way for sure but there’s still time for another October surprise,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican fundraiser.
Trump’s decision to forgo the second debate follows a string of difficult headlines that have hindered his chances to get back into the race.
In the past two weeks, The New York Times reported Trump paid only $750 in federal income tax in 2016 and 2017; Trump gave what many viewed as a disastrous performance in the first debate; the president continued to downplay the severity of COVID-19 before and after being hospitalized with the virus; and Trump single-handedly scrambled stimulus talks in a way that appeared to ensure Americans would not see economic relief before the election.
“It’s immensely frustrating that some of these wounds are self-inflicted,” Eberhart said.
President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden squared off in a combative but restrained debate Thursday night that gave voters their final chance to size the candidates up before heading to the polls Nov. 3. Trump dialed it back in Nashville after his disruptive previous showing in the first debate in Cleveland late last month resulted in handwringing from within his own party. But there were still plenty of clashes, as the candidates got personal with stinging attacks focused on their families, race and immigration.
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