CLEVELAND (AP) – In an election year like no other, the first debate between United States (US) President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, could be a pivotal moment in a race that has remained stubbornly unchanged in the face of historic tumult.
Last night’s debate offered a massive platform for Trump and Biden to outline their starkly 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.
The health emergency has upended the usual trappings of a presidential campaign, lending heightened importance to the debate.
But amid intense political polarisation, comparatively few undecided voters remain, raising questions as to how, or if, the debate might shape a race that has been defined by its bitterness and, at least so far, its stability.
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, particularly considering Trump’s withering attacks.
And 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 a virus that has killed more people in America than any other nation.
“This will be the first moment in four years that someone will walk on stage as co-equal to Trump and be able to hold him to account for the malfeasance he has shown leading the country,” said Steve Schmidt, senior campaign aide for John McCain’s 2008 Republican presidential bid and a frequent Trump critic.
“If Biden is unable to indict Trump for all that he has done, (that) would be profound failure. There is no spinning that away.”
The president’s handling of the coronavirus will likely dominate much of the discussion.