CLEVELAND (AP) — With just 35 days until the election, President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden are barreling into their crucial first debate Tuesday night, the most pivotal moment so far in a race that has remained stubbornly unchanged in the face of historic tumult.
Both men huddled with aides in the final hours before the debate, which will offer the candidates their biggest national stage to outline starkly different visions for a country facing multiple crises.
Americans are both fearful and impatient about the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs, and many are concerned about racial justice, protest violence or both.
Each side hoped the debate would energize its own base of supporters even as the candidates compete over the slim slice of undecided voters who could decide the election.
Biden will step onto the Cleveland stage holding leads in the polls — significant in national surveys, close in some battleground states — and looking to expand his support among suburban voters, women and seniors.
Surveys show the president has lost significant ground among those groups since 2016, but Biden faces his own questions encouraged by Trump’s withering attacks.
Trump will have arguably his best chance to try to reframe the campaign as a choice between candidates and not a referendum over his handling of the virus that has killed more people in America than any other nation. Americans, according to polling, have soured on his leadership in the crisis, and the president has struggled to land consistent attacks on Biden.
“This will be the first moment in four years that someone will walk on stage as co-equal to Trump and be able to hold him to account for the malfeasance he has shown leading the country,” said Steve Schmidt, senior campaign aide for John McCain’s 2008 Republican presidential bid and a frequent Trump critic. “If Biden is unable to indict Trump for all that he has done, (that) would be a profound failure. There is no spinning that away.”