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What to watch for in the presidential debate tonight

What to expect from tonight's final debate
What to expect from final presidential debate tonight 09:19

Thursday night marks the second and final debate between President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, set to take place after over 40 million voters have already made their decisions about who to support, voting by mail and in person in states across the country.

The pressure is on Biden to deliver a steady, strong performance, while Mr. Trump's task is to sell his record on COVID and the economy. Biden has been off the trail preparing for the debate, while Mr. Trump has taken a more relaxed approach, continuing to fundraise and hold campaign rallies.

Here are a few things to look for in the final debate:

Muted mic effect  

After last month's disastrous debate in which the president and to a much lesser extent Biden interrupted, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced earlier this week that at the beginning of each of the 15-minute segments, the candidates will have two minutes to speak without interruption, a measure the commission is enforcing by cutting the mic of the candidate whose turn it is to be silent. The Trump campaign has decried the possibility that an "unnamed" person might cut the mics.

It remains to be seen whether either candidate might try to yell over his silenced microphone to make a point, or quietly accepts the new rules. 

But even if the rules are followed, there are still 11 more minutes of open discussion in each of the segments when the candidates could end up talking over each other. Mr. Trump was asked on "Fox & Friends" this week if he might alter his debate strategy and perhaps take some of his time to answer earlier questions, as Vice President Mike Pence did in his debate. 

"I do fine, and I do my own debating. A lot of people said I won," Mr. Trump responded. 

Still, after trying to throw Biden off with frequent interruptions in their first debate, the president does seem to be entertaining the idea of talking less.

He told "Fox & Friends, "Actually, the interesting thing, they said, 'if you let him talk, he'll lose his train of thought.'"

Alleged Hunter Biden laptop

Even if the moderator doesn't bring it up, the president is sure to mention the New York Post's reports about the alleged laptop and emails of Hunter Biden. Mr. Trump has called the Bidens an "organized crime family," an accusation for which there is no evidence. The laptop and emails have not been verified. 

Biden has shown little tolerance for this line of questioning. He criticized a CBS News reporter for asking about the Post's story, and he recently told local ABC station WISN that the idea that his son had profited off the Biden name was "garbage" and called it the "last-ditch effort in this desperate campaign to smear me and my family."

Appeals to suburban women and seniors

The president is losing with women and seniors, two groups likely to be key constituencies in this race. Mr. Trump has made open pleas to women, particularly suburban women, at rallies to "please" like him. And the president also recently addressed seniors as "my favorite people in the world," though polling indicates the feeling may not be mutual. Mr. Trump won seniors by a margin of 7 points over Hillary Clinton, but now trails Biden with these voters. He'll have another chance to make the case for a second term, though, given that the debate topics below, selected by moderator Kristen Welker, cover areas likely to be of interest to these voters:

  • Fighting COVID-19
  • American families
  • Race in America
  • Climate change
  • National security
  • Leadership

Court packing

If Welker doesn't raise court packing — the idea that the number of justices on the Supreme Court should be increased in order to dilute the power of the conservative majority — it's still possible that President Trump will. Biden has been criticized lately for declining to state his position on the issue, though he has just revealed in a "60 Minutes" interview airing Sunday that he'd put together a bipartisan commission to examine "how to reform the court system because it's getting out of whack."

Biden told "CBS Evening News" anchor Norah O'Donnell, "There's a number of alternatives that are — go well beyond packing." He added, "The last thing we need to do is turn the Supreme Court into just a political football, whoever has the most votes gets whatever they want. Presidents come and go. Supreme Court justices stay for generations."

Election interference

Another possible topic is election interference — both foreign and domestic. Mail-in and early voting has begun in many states, and concerns about election meddling remain high. Just a day ago, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe announced that Iran and Russia were trying to interfere in the U.S. election and had obtained some voter registration information. He also said that Iran had sent spoof emails meant to "intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump," and he suggested that there had been reporting on these emails "within the last 24 hours."

On Tuesday, CBS News reported that dozens of voters in a heavily Democratic county in Florida and across several states reported receiving emails that purportedly came from a right-wing group that threatened to "come after" them unless they voted for President Trump. 

Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray sought to reassure the public, saying Americans "should be confident that your vote counts."

On the domestic front, the president has for months said without evidence that voting by mail could be tied to widespread fraud and abuse, though at the same time, his campaign has launched a social media ad blitz aimed at encouraging supporters to vote by mail.

The debate begins at 9 p.m. ET.

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