NASHVILLE, Tenn — President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, meet on the debate stage for the second and final time Thursday night in Tennessee. The 90-minute prime-time meeting comes just 12 days before Election Day.
Some key questions heading into the debate:
CAN TRUMP CHANGE THE TRAJECTORY OF THE RACE?
Trump cannot afford a status quo debate. National polls show him losing to Biden, and while some battleground state polls are tighter, even some of Trump’s own allies are worrying aloud about the prospect of a serious defeat. This debate represents his best, and perhaps last, opportunity to change the contours of the race while tens of millions of Americans are watching.
The president fumbled his chance in the opening debate last month, when his attack-all-the-time approach backfired. Trump missed another opportunity when he refused to participate in the second debate after the organizers decided the candidates would face each other virtually because of concerns about the president's coronavirus infection.
Trump needs to find a way to focus the debate — and the election more broadly — on Biden and his liabilities. But to do that, he needs to avoid making himself the center of attention, something that doesn’t come naturally to the president.
WILL THE MUTE BUTTON KEEP THINGS CIVIL?
The mute button has gotten a lot of attention leading up to the debate, but its impact may be overstated.
Given Trump's unrelenting interruptions in the first debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates added a new rule for Thursday's affair that will keep each candidate muted while the other delivers his two-minute remarks at the outset of each of the six debate topics. The remainder of each 15-minute block will be an open discussion, without any muting, the commission says.
The change will ensure the candidates have at least some time to answer questions without interference. Ultimately, however, the mute button can only be used for a combined total of 24 minutes of the 90-minute debate. That's plenty of time for the candidates to mix it up.
DOES TRUMP HAVE A BETTER ANSWER FOR THE PANDEMIC?
Whether he wants to or not, the president will have to talk about the coronavirus at length. And he has to come up with a better answer than he did during the first debate to convince persuadable voters that he has the situation under control.
It won't be easy.
Coronavirus infections are surging to their highest levels in months. More than 220,000 Americans are dead. And rather than working on a comprehensive plan to stop the spread based on science, Trump has spent recent days attacking the nation's most respected infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, while undermining his own administration's recommendation to wear masks.
In the first debate, Trump pointed to his months-old decision to institute a partial travel ban on China as evidence he was doing a good job. He's also highlighted carefully selected statistics that downplayed the extent of the crisis. He'll have to come with something better than that if he's going to convince anyone but his most loyal base that he hasn't completely surrendered to the deadliest U.S. health crisis in a century.
HOW WILL BIDEN HANDLE ATTACKS AGAINST HIS SON?
Trump and his allies in the conservative media have ramped up their focus on alleged maleficence by Biden’s son Hunter in recent days. Biden’s team expects Trump to make those allegations a centerpiece of his debate strategy.
The president tried to make an issue in the first debate of Hunter Biden and his drug use, which the younger Biden has publicly acknowledged. But Trump’s attack may have backfired when Biden declared that he was proud of his son, who, like many Americans, had fought to overcome an addiction.
Trump believes he has more ammunition this time around, however, following the publication of a tabloid report offering a bizarre twist to familiar concerns about Hunter Biden’s work overseas. The report centers on data allegedly recovered from Hunter Biden’s laptop, though the data has not been verified and, if it is legitimate, does not tie candidate Biden to any corruption.
Biden’s team considers the issue a distraction from much more pressing concerns — namely, the pandemic — but Biden will certainly have to defend himself and his family again on Thursday night.
CAN BIDEN AVOID PLAYING INTO GOP NARRATIVE?
Biden's greatest foe Thursday night may be himself.
Trump has struggled to find an effective line of attack against the 77-year-old Democrat, but the lifetime politician has a well-established history of gaffes that have made him the butt of Republican jokes for years.
To that end, the 74-year-old Trump and his allies spent much of the year questioning Biden's mental and physical health. While Biden quieted those questions with a solid performance in the first debate, they have not gone away. He needs to avoid any embarrassing missteps on stage that would play into the broader Republican narrative that he's ill-equipped to lead the free world.
Biden will certainly be prepared. He spent four of the last five days with no public events so he could focus almost exclusively on debate prep.
Still, Biden's history of self-imposed stumbles raises the distinct possibility that he could hurt his campaign, with or without Trump's help. It doesn't help Biden that expectations will be higher after Trump's weak performance in the first debate.