Hillary Clinton’s goals are to prove herself affable, fend off stinging attacks by rapidly moving to offense and lay bait that entices her opponent into making a costly mistake.
Donald Trump needs to show commander-in-chief competence while prosecuting a tenacious case against the Democratic nominee. But he also must realize when a precarious moment requires restraint.
Monday’s first presidential debate between Clinton and Trump at Hofstra University in New York will mark the most important event of the 2016 campaign to date and likely draw a massive number of eyeballs that will shatter viewership records.
“It could be up around 100 million,” predicts GOP debate coach Brett O’Donnell on the event’s viewership. “The first 30 minutes of this debate could change the entire narrative of the entire campaign.”
The 90-minute face-off is garnering extraordinary attention given the high profiles of both polarizing combatants, the unpredictable nature of Trump’s antics and the surprisingly competitive state of the race with just over 40 days until the election.
NBC News anchor Lester Holt will moderate six 15-minute segments covering three overarching topics: “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity” and “Securing America.”
The highly emotional issues of deadly police force against African-Americans and how to most effectively protect the country from acts of terrorism are likely to be at the forefront, given the recent unrest in Charlotte, North Carolina, bombings in New York and New Jersey, and mall attack in Minnesota.
But more than anything else, Americans will tune in to see Clinton and Trump size each other up and take each other on directly for the first time during this astonishing election cycle, with only several feet separating them onstage. Every mannerism, hand gesture, facial reaction and voice inflection during this gladiatorial enterprise will be surgically examined and judged instantly and unforgivingly by millions.
“It’s a much more intimate setting. They’re in a bank vault compared to what they’re used to,” says Keith Nahigian, a GOP consultant who managed Michele Bachmann’s 2012 White House try. “People want to see them next to each other. The conventions are the commercial; the debates are a show.”
Nothing is quite like a fall presidential debate in a general election, but Clinton has more experience than Trump in the realm, given the 11 one-on-one debates she’s participated in against candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 race and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont this cycle.
Trump has previously benefited from having a large gaggle of primary candidates around him, allowing him to bob and weave with scorching bombast and humorous put-downs. On Monday night, he’ll have to fill much more time and likely won’t be able to seep into the background to avoid offering substance.
“He’s like a rock band that’s a one-hit wonder. They’ve got one really good song, but you don’t know the rest of their music,” O’Donnell says.
But Trump also has the whimsical flair of a showman, something the Clinton campaign is dutifully reminding reporters and pundits of as her team works to set expectations for the performances.
“If anybody thinks Donald Trump enters the debate as an underdog, ask Donald Trump what he thinks of his debating skills. If you ask him, he won every primary debate he was involved in,” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon says. “This is someone who made a living as a television star for many years and had a highly rated program. He has a flair for the dramatic and showman’s mentality that makes him naturally suited for a televised debate.”
Trump’s and Clinton’s respective preparations vividly reflect the vastly different people they are, and how divergently they see their own strengths.
While Clinton took several days off the campaign trail last week to review briefing books and study tapes of Trump’s primary debates, the New York City billionaire continued to barrel through rallies in battleground states, picking up tips from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich while on the road.
“They’re talking to him about how to answer questions. It’s not formal debate prep,” says a Trump adviser not authorized to speak on the record about internal strategy. “Everyone knows how important this first debate is, including Mr. Trump. I think you’ll see the best Donald Trump yet.”
But facing fewer paths to an Electoral College victory, Republicans say that Trump must use this opportunity to cross a credible threshold with voters who don’t like or trust Clinton. They just disagree about how exactly he should accomplish that.
One approach would be to employ a restrained version of Trump that seeks to avoid looking intemperate, reckless or unhinged, simply by focusing his remarks on himself.
“Let her do her thing in the first debate,” says Ed Rogers, a veteran GOP consultant turned lobbyist. “Just make this one about you and your poise and your credibility. Don’t take a big swing. That’s getting in the danger zone in the first debate. If a slow one comes across the plate, you’ll be tempted. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s all about avoiding your negative stereotype.”
O’Donnell, though, argues such a strategy would be an awful miscalculation, given the media’s hunger to declare a winner and loser during the flood of post-debate coverage.
“He’s got to try to win the debate. Winning for you guys and for the American public is judged on a couple of levels. Yes, it’s competence, but it’s also aggression. If he tries to play defense, and just play nice, people are going to say, ‘That’s not the Donald Trump we knew! Why is he going soft on Hillary?'” O’Donnell says. “It would be a giant mistake for him to go into a shell, try and demonstrate he knows issues, and leave her alone.”
The Clinton campaign acknowledges she is preparing for both versions of Trump. But if he brings the subdued, languid persona to Long Island, Clinton may try to rattle him by tearing into issues bound to get under his skin, like his checkered success as a businessman and his questionable administration of the highly scrutinized Trump Foundation and Trump University.
“Trump is very protective of his brand and image. Clinton could argue his failure to release tax information means his net worth is a lot less than he claims,” says Aaron Kall, the director of debate at the University of Michigan who penned a short book analyzing the 2016 primary debates. “Clinton will try to goad him into a major gaffe or stumble.”
Under tough questioning from Matt Lauer during NBC’s “Commander-in-Chief Forum,” critics said Clinton looked frustrated and defensive. Given her own likability deficit, she may look for ways to lighten up her vulnerabilities with a joke or a hearty laugh – though many liberals believe she’s beholden to an unfairly applied behavioral standard because she’s a woman.
But Trump also has to be careful not to cross an invisible line with his penchant for acerbic, unwieldy attacks against the first major party female nominee. Calling Clinton “Crooked Hillary” before a stadium of thousands of adoring fans comes off much differently than it would while positioned just across the dais from her and before a largely silent, bipartisan audience.
While the Clinton campaign is confident she can lap Trump on the details of policy, her aides are very cognizant of how the modern media will largely score the showdown based on a series of moments – which is why the setting is no slam-dunk for the former secretary of state.
“If observers allow the debate to be judged by who makes for better television, that will be doing a disservice to the country. At this point close enough to the election, down to two people, it can’t be that he has a benefit of the doubt for lack of knowledge, lack of preparation,” Fallon says.
Democrats also have done an effective job of working the referees before the game, and of placing pressure on Holt to intervene if Trump unleashes a trail of falsehoods. Given the backlash Lauer received for not challenging Trump during the “Commander-in-Chief Forum,” Holt may feel especially obligated to hold the candidate’s feet to the fire.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., says the media will be on trial just as much as the candidates.
“Donald Trump is going to tell 20 to 30 lies over the course of the debate. Hillary Clinton is going to tell the truth, and the question is what standard is Donald Trump held to in this debate,” Murphy tells U.S. News. “Are we going to all be vigilant to make sure that in the aftermath we correct the record in as many ways possible and call him out?