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As Biden and Trump prep for the 2024 presidential debate, what’s at stake? | US Election 2024 Information

Washington, DC – It began with a quote made famous by actor Clint Eastwood.

“Make my day,” United States President Joe Biden said in a video challenging his Republican adversary, former President Donald Trump, to two debates in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. The first airs this Thursday.

In throwing down the gauntlet, Biden gave Trump, who has long boasted of his prowess on the debate stage, an offer he could hardly refuse. Trump soon responded with his own bravado: “I’m ready to go anywhere that you are.”

The back-and-forth ended speculation that the octogenarian Biden and septuagenarian Trump may forgo the nationally broadcast debates, in favour of more controlled, less combative settings for spreading their campaign messages — like rallies, for instance.

Going head to head is a political calculation that carries high risks, according to Aaron Kall, the director of the debate programme at the University of Michigan.

But it could also be the key to pulling ahead in a stagnant race, one where polls show Trump and Biden closely matched. Even Trump’s historic criminal conviction has done little to tip the scales.

“Both of the candidates think that it will be advantageous having their opponent be seen by the public for an extended period of time, especially for voters that may not normally tune in,” Kall told Al Jazeera.

“But really, only one of them can be right.”

A history of face-offs

The debate may be the first of the 2024 presidential race, but it will be the third time Trump and Biden have gone head to head as presidential hopefuls: They faced each other previously in the 2020 elections.

“Neither have debated [since their last face-off], which is kind of unique,” Kall said, noting that Trump skipped the Republican Party debates in the lead-up to the primaries this year.

“So both of them will kind of be out of practice, not having debated since the fall of 2020, and it may take a little time to kind of get back into their regular debating styles,” he said.

For both men, the forum has offered a mixed bag.

In 2016, when Trump made his first successful bid for public office, his raucous, combative and off-the-cuff debating style helped him gain notoriety in a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates.

His subsequent throwdown with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton gained higher ratings than any other debate before or since. It drew an estimated 84 million viewers.

Trump looms over Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the 2016 debate [Rick T Wilking/AP Photo]

Camera-ready from his days as a reality star, Trump gave insult-laden, physically foreboding showings that cemented his public persona and helped to build his electoral base, Kall explained. At one point during his face-off with Clinton, Trump even appeared to loom over her as she spoke.

For his part, Biden often failed to rise above the fray in crowded Democratic primary debates during his earlier runs for president. Still, experts say he has proved a worthy opponent in one-on-one vice presidential debates against Sarah Palin in 2008 and Paul Ryan in 2012.

Leaning into his everyman appeal, Biden served as a plain-spoken and pugilistic attack dog on the debate stage, offering a counterpoint to the more refined Barack Obama, for whom he would serve as vice president.

Fast forward to September 2020, when then-incumbent Trump finally faced off against Biden.

The event quickly went off the rails, with Trump repeatedly shouting over both Biden and Fox News moderator Chris Wallace. As the evening devolved, Wallace assumed the role of exasperated babysitter. Trump came across as belligerent, Biden befuddled.

“Will you shut up, man?” Biden appealed to Trump in one of the most memorable quotes from the event.

National Public Radio political correspondent Domenico Montanaro would later describe the evening as chaos, writing it may have been the “worst” presidential debate in history.

“If this was supposed to be a boxing match, it instead turned into President Trump jumping on the ropes, refusing to come down, the referee trying to coax him off, and Joe Biden standing in the middle of the ring with his gloves on and a confused look on his face,” Montanaro wrote.

What is the motivation to participate?

But that first debate likely planted the seeds for Trump and Biden to spar again.

Kall said Biden likely hopes that the debate will showcase the increasingly radical rhetoric that is all too common at Trump’s rallies – but may not be as visible to “moderates, independents, and soft supporters”.

After all, Trump infamously refused to condemn white supremacy during the first 2020 debate, instead telling the Proud Boys, a far-right group, to “stand back and stand by”.

For his part, Trump may hope that the length of the live proceedings will tax Biden’s advanced age, Kall explained.

The ratings are expected to be high, despite the debate’s unorthodox late-June scheduling. When Trump and Biden first debated in 2020, for instance, they brought in 73 million viewers, the third highest in history.

“For the average, low-information voter, they don’t tune in until closer to the election, but they may catch a debate,” Kall said. “So these debates are one of the rare opportunities for more of the kind of casual person — that may vote but may not really be following the daily updates — to see these candidates for the first time in a long time.”

second debate
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and then-President Donald Trump are seen during their second presidential debate in October 2020 [Morry Gash/AP Photo]

The first 2020 debate between Biden and Trump has also cast a long shadow over the format of Thursday’s debate, which will be hosted by CNN in Atlanta, Georgia.

The candidates’ microphones will be muted when they are not speaking. There will be no studio audience. Both those factors are widely seen to be in Biden’s favour. The event will also not be overseen by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, in a break from three decades of tradition.

How can the candidates maximise the event?

Issues of the economy, inflation and immigration are expected to loom large at the event, as are foreign policy questions about China, Ukraine and Israel’s war in Gaza.

The debate moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, are also anticipated to raise the events of the 2020 presidential election: Trump has publicly maintained — without evidence — that the race was “stolen” through voter fraud.

Another possible topic for the debate is Trump’s ongoing legal woes. The event comes less than a month after Trump was convicted in New York on 34 felony charges of falsifying business documents to cover up hush-money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels.

The verdict made Trump the first president, past or present, in US history to be found guilty on criminal charges. While Biden has tread carefully when addressing the trial — to avoid any appearance of involvement — his campaign released a new advertisement this month highlighting the conviction as evidence of Trump’s character.

“This election is between a convicted criminal who is only out for himself and a president who is fighting for your family,” the advertisement’s voiceover says.

But the verdict may also offer an opportunity for Trump, according to James Davis, a Republican strategist and founder of Touchdown Strategies.

Davis pointed out that the jury’s decision made only a small dent in Trump’s base of support, and Republican officials have largely denounced the conviction as politicised.

The debate offers Trump a stage to further that narrative, particularly among key demographics including young Black men, Davis added.

He recommended that Trump should try to connect his conviction to the First Step Act, a bill he signed in 2018 to cut excessively long federal prison sentences.

“He can say, ‘I’ve known that the justice system doesn’t treat people fairly across the board … and that’s why I passed the First Step Act, because it’s been treating minority and Black communities unfairly for years,’” Davis told Al Jazeera.

“If he can keep it clean and message-focused, he can do well,” he added. “But if he appears to lean more into the Trump revenge tour, then that will ultimately substantiate some of the arguments against him that Biden has been making.”

For Biden, Democratic strategist Kristian Ramos said the debate offers an opportunity to cut through negative perceptions of the country’s economic performance: Biden could, for instance, tout the policies he signed to create jobs.

“It’s an opportunity for him to tell the story of the last three years and what he’s done and how he can help the American people,” Ramos told Al Jazeera.

He also pointed to polls that have shown some independent voters drifting away from Trump after his conviction. That demographic could be key to deciding the election.

“It still may be a bridge too far for many voters,” Ramos said of Trump’s conviction. “So this is an opportunity for Biden to tell that story to those voters and to reach them through the debate.”


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