The stage is set for a dramatic showdown at Hofstra University in New York Monday night when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton face off in the first presidential debate of the general election.
The three presidential debates (Monday; Sunday, Oct. 9; and Wednesday, Oct. 19) are the candidates’ highest-profile chance to change the narrative of the campaign—and with polls tightening between Clinton and Trump, the stakes for Monday’s debate couldn’t be higher. In 2012, more than 70 million people watched the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, and this year’s viewership could be even higher.
Though both Clinton and Trump have participated in their fair share of primary debates earlier this year, this will be the first time they’ve appeared on stage together—and their first head-on confrontation of what’s already been a contentious campaign.
After winning a coin toss, Clinton will get the first question Monday night.
Here’s a quick guide from CBS News for what to watch when the candidates take the stage:
1. Which Trump shows up?
Pundits and political operatives alike have noted that there are two Donald Trumps in this campaign: there’s the bombastic, off-the-cuff Trump whose rhetoric at rallies has energized his base and earned him the following that secured him the Republican nomination. And then there’s teleprompter Trump: a muted, more subdued candidate who is the product of his campaign’s desire to prove that he’s a viable commander-in-chief.
At least publicly, Trump and his campaign have indicated that the candidate has not spent the same kind of extensive time on debate prep that Clinton has.
Though his campaign says he has been watching old footage of Clinton’s debate appearances over the years, Trump himself has said he thinks it’s possible to prepare too much.
Will he work to show a softer, more rational (and “presidential”) side of himself Monday night? Or will Trump the entertainer be on full display?
2. Will the candidates be fact-checked?
Especially in a year where one candidate has repeatedly made false statements on the campaign trail and in public appearances, one key thing to watch is how moderator Lester Holt will deal with the candidates, should they say things that are untrue during the debate.
In 2012, Candy Crowley, then with CNN, stepped in to correct Mitt Romney during his town hall debate with President Obama on an answer about the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya—a move for which she was widely panned, especially by conservatives, in the debate’s aftermath. As a result, moderators have been asked their philosophy about how to handle fact-checking this time around: Fox News’ Chris Wallace, who is moderating the final debate on Oct. 19, has said he doesn’t see himself as the “truth squad” when he’s up on stage with the candidates.
Clinton’s campaign has made it clear that they believe either candidate should be called out for uttering falsehoods on the debate stage; meanwhile, Trump’s running mate Mike Pence told CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday that Trump will “speak the truth” and that he does not believe debate moderators should actively correct the candidates during the debate.
3. How do the scandals come up?
Monday night’s debate has three broad themes, according to NBC, each of which will take up a portion of the 90-minute debate: “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity,” and “Securing America.”
Those topics are broad and vague enough that Holt can ask about essentially anything he wants. And it’s a safe bet that he’ll quiz both candidates on their economic plans as well as their thoughts on various foreign policy and national security issues. But will Holt raise the issues that have captured most of the headlines surrounding both Trump and Clinton: their various scandals?
There’s the litany of things Trump has said about various ethnic and demographic groups in the country, from women to Muslims to Mexican immigrants; there are the questions about the Trump Foundation and its improper use of funds. For Clinton, there’s the long-standing scandal over her use of a private email server, as well as more recent things like her comments about Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”
4. What’s Clinton’s strategy for countering Trump?
Between repeated face-offs with then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 and another round with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders this year, Clinton has participated in her fair share of one-on-one presidential debates—but never against anyone quite like Trump. As the Republican primary debates made clear, no candidate has quite figured out the best way to take on Trump on the debate stage.
Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri has said Clinton is prepared for “whatever Trump shows up” to the debate and has strategies for each: but what does that realistically look like for Clinton? Will she work to rise above any potential Trump theatrics, pitching herself as the adult in the room? Or will Clinton have some zingers of her own prepared to counter the GOP business mogul who made a name for himself hosting “The Apprentice”?
It’s one thing to attack Trump from afar or to dismiss his comments at your own campaign rally, as Clinton has been doing frequently for more than a year; it’s another entirely to rebut him to his face in close range on a debate stage.
5. Does either of them come across as “likable enough”?
Both Clinton and Trump have some serious image issues with the American electorate: in fact, polling shows that they have the highest unfavorable ratings of any pair of presidential candidates in the era of modern polling. In the past, debates have been many voters’ main chance to form an opinion about the presidential nominees—it is one of three chances for them to literally view the candidates side by side.
At the end of these 90 minutes, will either candidate have given voters reason to like them more than they did when it started? For Clinton, who is plagued by questions about her trustworthiness and likability, can she find a way to connect with voters who are watching the debate? And for Trump, does he show a restraint in temperament that makes some skeptical voters give him a second look?
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