Congressional allies to both candidates brace for test of mental fitness to overshadow presidential debate

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill say that one looming question will be hanging over Thursday night’s presidential debate – how both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump address concerns over their age and mental acuity.

Democrats want the president’s performance to dispel the GOP-propelled narrative that the 81-year-old president lacks the fitness to hold the nation’s highest office, and by extension prove that Trump, who was found guilty in one criminal trial and faces three more, is the one who is unfit to serve.

Republicans, meanwhile, are engineering a double-edged expectations game that seemingly raises the stakes on Biden, while lowering them for Trump.

Beyond that, Democrats say they want Biden to clarify what he can and cannot do to help the economy while Republicans implore Trump to stay on message and not resort to personal attacks.

In conversations with over a dozen lawmakers, both sides acknowledged that a debate performance four months out from election day is unlikely to make or break either candidate, but each side said they had high expectations for the rematch that presents a unique opportunity for both men to outline what they accomplished in four years as president.

The chair of the House GOP campaign arm, Rep. Richard Hudson, wants Trump to focus on his record and not go after Biden for his age, telling CNN he doesn’t think that should be a political issue.

“I think the American people will get a clear choice between two visions for America,” Hudson said. “It’s a unique situation when you got two people who have already been president, so you’re not talking about their hopes and dreams, you’re talking about their records.”

Trump, who often claims that Biden is mentally unfit, made the baseless allegation over the weekend that Biden could use medical supplements, or even illegal substances such as cocaine, to enhance his performance on the debate stage in Atlanta.

While the Biden campaign called the move “desperate,” it didn’t take long for Trump’s narrative to take hold among House Republicans. GOP Rep. Ronny Jackson, Trump’s former White House physician, called on Biden to take a drug test before the debate, and many Republicans echoed Trump’s empty claims.

But House Speaker Mike Johnson tried to tamp down Trump’s rhetoric about Biden’s preparedness.

“Look there is a lot of things that are said in jest. Of course, no one expects that Joe Biden will be on cocaine,” Johnson told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on “The Source.” “People are asking will he be on some sort of energy drinks or something?”

House Speaker Mike Johnson speaks at a press conference on June 12 in Washington, DC. - Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
House Speaker Mike Johnson speaks at a press conference on June 12 in Washington, DC. - Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Republicans also sought to undermine Biden’s many days of preparation ahead of the debate with his team of advisers at Camp David, as a way to muddy the waters.

“He’s doing a ton of prep work. I never heard anything like that, like eight days at Camp David,” GOP Rep. Byron Donalds said of Biden. “So I anticipate he’s going to come in ready to go.”

Democrats argue this new line of attack — where Biden is over-prepared instead of unfit —is an attempt from Republicans to try and get ahead of the president if he presents himself similar to his State of the Union address where he exceeded expectations just weeks after former Special counsel Robert Hur — who did not press charges in his investigation — painted a picture of the president as a forgetful commander in chief who failed to properly protect highly sensitive classified information.

“‘Sleepy Joe’ was not asleep at all during the State of the Union,” Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer, parroting a GOP refrain of Biden, told CNN. “I think (Republicans) are afraid that Biden is going to be sharp, on point and impressive.”

At the same time, Republicans have lowered expectations of Trump, claiming his long history of antagonizing CNN sets him up to claim victory no matter what happens given false accusations that have taken hold in Republican circles.

“It’s a no lose” situation, GOP Rep. Kelly Armstrong said, arguing that many Republicans view the network as “an uneven playing field.”

The jockeying ahead of the debate puts in context how lawmakers are in overdrive trying to claim the narrative on behalf of their respective candidate ahead of the face off.

‘Put to rest these rumors’: What Democrats think a Joe Biden performance can do

Democrats want to see Biden continue to chip away at Republican claims undermining his ability to lead on Thursday, while acknowledging that no single performance could dismantle the GOP narrative definitively.

“I am hoping to see President Biden look strong and competent, which I believe he is,” said Democratic Rep. Susan Wild of Pennsylvania told CNN. “I want him to focus on all of the good things that we have gotten done under this presidency, especially in the last Congress, and to put to rest these rumors of him somehow being unfit.”

Wild, who was with Biden in Normandy, where a host of recent GOP allegations about the president’s mental fitness originated, described Biden as “perfect” and said lawmakers who have personal experiences with him need to speak out to cut the noise: “I really think that people need to hear those stories.”

Rep. Susan Wild talks with President Joe Biden after the State of the Union address on Thursday, March 7. - Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images
Rep. Susan Wild talks with President Joe Biden after the State of the Union address on Thursday, March 7. - Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

For Democrats then, the Republican narrative that Biden is too old or unfit to serve stems from a place of weakness.

“They’re sowing doubt because they can’t come for his agenda and his platform because it’s incredibly popular with the American people. And on top of that, a lot of good things have been done over the last few years” Democratic Rep. Maxwell Frost of Florida told CNN. Biden “could have been in the same high school as Donald Trump.”

On top of that, Democrats want Biden to stay above the fray and present a clear message.

Part of that clarity Democrats are seeking stems from how Biden presents his economic message. Even though the unemployment rate is at a historically low level, inflation remains high. Democrats want to see Biden on Thursday explain what is working and what he deserves credit for, while outlining what can be done to bring prices down.

“We’re not quite where we need to be, but moving in the right direction,” Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts told CNN. “He just needs to stick to the facts.”

Republicans want Trump to stay focused on policy not personal vendettas

Republicans on Capitol Hill hope that Trump can maintain a calm demeanor and not use his spotlight to air out grievances over his conviction in New York for falsifying business records or his other ongoing criminal cases.

“I hope he talks about the country moving forward and not past, you know, regrets,” House Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul told CNN. “I want him to be thinking, looking forward, not backwards.”

A winning Trump performance at the debate – according to moderates like GOP Rep. Nick LaLota of New York – would be “very policy oriented.”

“Focus on the issues. Lay off the personalities,” Rep. Lisa McClain of Michigan told CNN of what she wants to see from both candidates.

Senate GOP Whip John Thune had a clear message to Trump: “Don’t take the bait.”

But Thune’s House counterpart had a more divisive message.

“I think Trump will win it without a problem,” House GOP Whip Tom Emmer told CNN. “Because he’s absolutely sharp, has energy, he has more energy than people that are 20 years younger than him and the current occupant of the Oval Office can barely function.”

CNN’s Haley Talbot, Morgan Rimmer, Lauren Fox and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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