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Debates offer candidates a vast and risky platform for contrast: ANALYSIS

The two agreed Wednesday to a debate hosted by CNN on June 27 and a debate hosted by ABC News on September 10, the most definitive sign they will participate in a face-to-face forum after months of speculation that the setting would be yet another. political tradition is left aside.

Granted, agreeing to participate in a debate is not the same as going on stage, and the two sides might still disagree on logistics. But strategists from both parties said the arrangement indicated each campaign saw benefits in a public brawl.

“It’s an important opportunity both to solidify your base, but particularly for those undecided voters, for those independent, undecided voters, it’s an opportunity to remind them, to get people to focus in June on the campaign for those who maybe haven’t really paid the most attention to it,” said Democratic strategist Karen Finney, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

The agreement on the two debates, coming quickly after Biden proposed the forums, comes ahead of a six-month sprint to Election Day. Importantly, they would take place before early voting begins and earlier than previous debates in late September and October.

Trump rallied his base by speaking out against the dozens of criminal charges he faces, while gesturing to swing voters by highlighting frustrations with the economy, which polls show remains a top concern voters. Biden, meanwhile, presents himself as a steady hand at the wheel and a defender of reproductive rights while touting accomplishments such as his administration’s vast infrastructure investments.

So far, Trump has dominated most early state and national polls, while Biden, in some surveys, has narrowed his deficit — but never enough to take a consistent lead.

Democrats told ABC News they were encouraged by the Biden campaign’s decision Wednesday to initiate the two debates, saying it gave Biden a chance to present himself as the adult in the race while hoping the leading platform could change the race’s stubborn dynamics.

Additionally, the Biden campaign proposed terms that would eliminate a live audience and ensure that only he and Trump would qualify — trying to lock in a framework that would deprive Trump of an opportunity to perform in front of the crowd and prevent a multi-party melee. candidates. . The Biden campaign also refuses to partner with the Commission on Presidential Debates, saying it is ill-equipped to handle Trump on stage.

“It just demonstrates that the campaign recognizes that it needs to change the dynamic and that debates are hopefully an effective way to do that,” said a source familiar with Biden’s campaign strategy, which, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss it. the debates.

“I think the main goal of the Biden campaign is to show the nation not only how unhinged Trump is, but also how much he has lost his fastball over the last four years,” added a pollster Democrat. “And that type of showcase, I think, will create that contrast. I think the other very smart thing to do tactically was to eliminate third-party candidates, because that puts on the ballot the choice that Biden wants , that is to say him or Trump for all the marbles.

The Biden camp is already trying to go on the offensive on this issue, with campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon saying in a statement: “No more games. No more chaos, no more debates about debates. We’ll see Donald Trump on June 27 in Atlanta – if he shows up.”

Yet pitfalls await Biden.

Democrats say the president effectively fended off speculation about his age (81) with a forceful State of the Union address earlier this year, but strategists admitted that a mistake during one of the debates could revive concerns.

“That would be a problem in that it could, I think, confirm a lot of voters’ concerns about him and make it even more difficult for him to allay those concerns,” the source familiar with campaign strategy said of ‘a bad Biden. blunder.

Republicans, for their part, seemed impatient to see the two candidates face off.

Polls show voters trust Trump more than Biden on several policy issues, including topics voters care about like the economy and immigration, leading Republican strategists to tell ABC News that the contrast on stage actually benefits the former president, not his successor. , and that even a sensational performance from Biden can only go so far.

“Do (voters) feel like the economy is doing better or worse? Do they feel like the world is at peace? Do they feel like the border is secure? Do they feel- Are they safe at home? Do they feel like they have more money in their pocket? Biden can’t answer yes to any of these questions. , said Chip Saltsman, a GOP strategist who worked on former Vice President Mike Pence’s 2024 campaign.

Republicans also dismissed speculation that a debate without an audience, where moderators would have the power to mute microphones, would inhibit Trump.

The former president, during his previous campaigns, demonstrated an aggressive campaign style, shouting at his opponents and moderators and disrupting any strategy from Democrats entering the forum, a tact he is expected to continue this year , regardless of the rules.

“That’s certainly one of his talents,” said a former Trump administration official. “The rules will be decided, we’ll see exactly what it looks like, but more or less he takes you with him. Whatever direction he wants to go, you kind of have to go there, as we’ve seen since the debates of the past.

Democrats warn, however, that the strategy is a double-edged sword.

Trump showed a penchant for derailing debates, sometimes muddling them to the point that viewers could barely hear who was speaking. But if Biden manages to break through, he could emerge as a more serious candidate if Trump “rants and raves,” as Finney puts it.

“It’s not the same as two hours of serious conversation about what the country is facing and what you would do about it,” she said.

However, barring a major mistake or a coup de grace, the debates could barely move the electoral needle.

Both Biden and Trump have virtually universal name recognition, and many voters, polls show, have opinions about them based on years of observation, leaving little opinion to change about this race. year.

“Except for the worst case scenario, not much,” the former Trump administration official said when asked what impact the debate could have. “Universal name recognition, pretty hardened images. So you’re really talking about whether there’s a moment where someone says something that everyone can capture.”