What to Watch in Biden and Trump’s First Presidential Debate of 2024

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will face off Thursday for their first 2024 debate – a high-stakes opportunity to break through to politics-weary Americans that’s rife with potentially disastrous missteps.

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One piece of history is already set: The debate is the first between a sitting and former president, the latter also the first convicted felon to be a major party candidate. It is also coming much earlier than previous presidential election forums and is being run by CNN, instead of the nonpartisan commission that had controlled such events for over 30 years.

With Americans unenthused about the Biden-Trump rematch, the elderly, gaffe-prone candidates need to win over the sliver of voters still undecided, as well as rev up their bases. Expect the two, who have attacked each other publicly for months, to spar over border security, the economy and abortion on the stage.

Here’s what to know:

How do you watch the debate?

The 90-minute forum will kick off at 9 p.m. New York time in Atlanta and can be viewed on CNN and on its website. Other broadcast networks, including Bloomberg Television, will simulcast the event. CNN journalists Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will moderate.

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Who qualified for the debate?

Biden and Trump were the only candidates to meet CNN’s requirements: getting at least 15% in four national polls of registered or likely voters and appearing on enough state ballots to potentially reach the 270 electoral vote threshold for a November victory. That means independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has the potential to spoil the race by taking votes from both Trump and Biden, won’t appear — but he’s holding his own event online at the same time.

What are the rules for the debate?

There will be no live studio audience — meaning no applause or boos. And each candidate’s microphone will be muted unless it is their turn to speak, a rule aimed at preventing the two from talking over each other as was the case in debates last cycle.

Biden and Trump must stay behind their podiums. After a coin toss, Biden picked the right one and Trump will be on the left. Pre-written notes are banned, but they will have water, pens and paper.

The candidates won’t be able to consult with their teams during the event’s two commercial breaks. There will be no opening remarks from the two, and Trump will have the last closing statement as determined by a coin flip.

What do Biden and Trump have at stake?

For Biden, the debate is an opportunity to bat away age concerns like he did during his State of the Union address in March, for which he won largely positive reviews. The president also needs to connect with young and Black voters, whose turnout he needs in key states.

For Trump, it will be a chance to separate himself from his criminal conviction last month. Trump also wants to reach suburban women and people disaffected by the economy.

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How will age come up?

Biden, 81, and Trump, 78, are the oldest major party candidates to vie for the White House, raising concerns among voters especially given their recent slip-ups.

Earlier this year, Biden identified Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as Mexico’s leader. More recently, he went viral for appearing to freeze during a musical performance at the White House’s Juneteenth celebration.

Trump, who tends to ramble during his rallies, has mixed up politicians’ names, notably when he confused former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with his Republican primary rival Nikki Haley for several minutes during a New Hampshire speech.

Both campaigns have used clips, sometimes deceptively edited, to raise questions about the contenders’ mental acuity on social media.

How will Trump’s conviction be treated?

Trump, who in May was found guilty of all 34 charges in a hush-money trial and faces three more criminal trials, has capitalized on his legal woes, getting a flood of donations that helped propel his fundraising haul past Biden’s last month.

Biden’s reelection campaign launched a $50 million June advertising blitz citing the verdict in an ad called “Character Matters.” Another conviction may also be raised — Biden’s son Hunter’s over unlawful firearm possession. Biden is sure to contrast his acceptance of his son’s verdict with Trump’s repeated attacks on the judicial system.

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What issues will come up?

Trump has repeatedly — and effectively — hammered Biden on the economy and border security. The latest Bloomberg News/Morning Consult poll shows a majority of swing-state voters trust the Republican more on both issues. And the president’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war has angered young voters, particularly those of color.

Meanwhile, Biden will likely attack Trump over his role in removing federal protections for abortion and the GOP’s push to limit access to the procedure, even as a majority of Americans say it should be legal in all or most cases, a Pew Research Center survey shows. Biden has also consistently cast Trump, who has mused about punishing his political enemies, as a threat to democracy.

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When is the next debate?

It will be months away — Sept. 10 — and will be hosted by ABC.

--With assistance from Gregory Korte.

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