Biden faces high-stakes moment in CNN debate with Trump

Thursday’s debate marks President Biden’s best chance yet to convince a skeptical electorate that he’s up to serving four more years in the White House amid stubbornly low approval ratings and persistent concerns about his age.

It serves as a high-stakes moment for Biden, who is narrowly trailing former President Trump in the polls in several key battleground states. On CNN’s debate stage in Atlanta, he must simultaneously make the case that he’s the better choice in November while appearing energetic, commanding the issues and avoiding gaffes that could set back his campaign.

Biden and his team appear cognizant of the importance of his match-up with Trump, having spent the seven days leading up to it at Camp David holding strategy sessions and mock debates.

Michael LaRosa, first lady Jill Biden’s traveling press secretary during the 2020 campaign, argued that the president will be judged by others on his visual and verbal presentation rather than on substance.

“Unfortunately, he will be judged by the press, the pundits, and more importantly the voters, by more superficial standards. His agility, his demeanor, his physical presentation, smoothness of his delivery, quick wit, and ability to counterpunch add up to the bar he will need to clear. All of those factors will be analyzed more than his record or the number of his accomplishments,” LaRosa said.

Fitness for office is likely to be a top issue for both candidates. Biden would be 86 at the end of a second term, and Trump would be 82. Both men have had viral moments of confusion or fumbled their words in recent months.

But surveys have shown it’s Biden who voters are more concerned about. A CBS News/YouGov poll conducted this month found 50 percent of voters said Trump has the mental and cognitive health to serve as president, compared to 35 percent who said the same about Biden.

The president and his team have tried to combat those concerns by pointing to his record of achievements during his first term, arguing Biden has the wisdom and experience to handle the job and using jokes to disarm attacks about the president’s age.

But experts suggested Biden can only do so much to assuage voter concerns in the 90 minutes he’ll be on stage Thursday.

“All he can do is avoid the downside there. That’s the victory,” said Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University. “If he goes in and he’s lively and he’s engaged and everything, that’s all good, but you’re not going to walk away and say that issue is done now.”

Biden did receive praise for what were deemed strong performances in both of his State of the Union addresses where he was quick on his feet and able to riff back and forth with Republicans attempting to shout him down.

He also was unusually feisty during remarks at the White House in February after special counsel Robert Hur released his investigation into Biden’s handling of special documents that painted the president as elderly and with memory problems. Biden went off on a reporter who asked about Hur’s reference to his son, Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015.

But a debate, without a script or teleprompter, is different from those moments.

“It’s really an opportunity to see the candidates in action — not their campaign teams, not their consultants and the people who are spinning certain things, but to see the candidates themselves, engaging,” said Kathryn Cramer Brownell, associate professor of history at Purdue University.

It’s clear Biden and his close confidants are taking the debate prep seriously. Biden has been stationed at Camp David since last week along with a cast of top advisers, including chief of staff Jeffrey Zients, senior aide Anita Dunn, top campaign official Mike Donilon, former chief of staff Ron Klain and Biden’s personal attorney, Bob Bauer, who has played the role of Trump in mock debates.

The members of Team Biden are hoping to use Thursday’s debate to highlight what they see as his biggest accomplishments — infrastructure investments, climate issues, international alliances and recent actions on the border — to an audience of millions of viewers.

But Biden must also be prepared to counterpunch against Trump, who has a history of aggressively interrupting opponents and getting under their skin.

“Don’t underestimate, don’t forget how much these two personally dislike each other,” former senior Biden aide Kate Bedingfield said Wednesday on CNN. “They really do. And so I think the intensity of being on stage together, 8 feet apart, with no audience really just kind of mano a mano, I think is going to add a little bit of X factor.”

Republicans indicated one of Trump’s top aims during the debate would be trying to press Biden for 90 minutes and make the president prove he has the stamina to keep up.

“What Trump wants the viewer to come away with when the debate’s over is that Biden doesn’t have the ability, the agility or the mental acuity to serve another four years,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said.

Biden’s challenge of showing that he’s mentally fit for the role is reminiscent of then-President Reagan running for reelection in 1984 at 73 years old.

In one of the most memorable lines in presidential debate history, Reagan flipped the script on the Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale, when he said, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

“That was an effective way to deflect attention away from a bigger concern about his age that was dominating, but that’s just one moment in a broader campaign. If someone was concerned about Reagan’s age, would they have changed their minds because of that one issue? It’s unlikely,” Cramer Brownell said. “Today, people tuning into the debates will likely have a strong feeling about the candidates, one way or the other.”

While Trump is only a few years younger than Biden, his allies have long argued that he’s energetic and youthful compared to the president and, ahead of the debate, that Trump can play offense while Biden is on defense.

“There’s something liberating about not being the incumbent,” a former Trump administration official said. “President Biden is the one who has a fresh record to defend of failure and shortcomings all across the board, which are at the forefront of people’s minds.”

Meanwhile, Biden allies suggest  the president’s preparation this week at Camp David should involve planning for surprises from his political rival.

“Is he being prepared to expect the unexpected, and are they assimilating what that looks, sounds and feels like with him?” LaRosa said. “That’s the only prep President Biden needs.”

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