Washington is bracing for an extraordinarily ugly and personal debate Tuesday night between President TrumpDonald John TrumpCensus Bureau intends to wrap up count on Oct. 5 despite judge’s order Top House Republican calls for probe of source of NYT Trump tax documents New Yorkers report receiving ballots with wrong name, voter addresses MORE and Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenTop House Republican calls for probe of source of NYT Trump tax documents Judge’s ruling creates fresh hurdle for Trump’s TikTok ban Harris says she hasn’t ‘made a plan one way or another’ on meeting Supreme Court nominee MORE, where nothing will be off limits as Trump seeks to make up ground in a race that appears to be slipping away.
The candidates, both in their 70s, are expected to attack one another over their age, mental acuity and fitness for office. Trump has questioned whether Biden has lost a step central to his campaign and the president has said he wants the challenger tested for drugs before the encounter.
Trump will almost certainly face allegations of racism at a moment of extraordinary civil unrest in the country.
The showdown between two men could also turn toward allegations they’ve faced from women, ranging from inappropriate touching to sexual assault.
The candidates’ private lives and their children are expected to be dragged into the proceedings. Trump has already said he’ll invoke Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, who Republicans say personally profited off of the former vice president’s political connections.
The New York Times report on Trump’s taxes has handed Biden a treasure trove of potential new attacks he could use to question the president’s wealth, business acumen and conflicts of interest, which Trump takes very personally.
“This should be the epic and Biblical slugfest we’ve all been waiting for,” said one Democratic strategist who talks with the Biden campaign. “We’ll either walk away knowing who will win the election or scratching our heads over what we just watched.”
Democrats are on edge believing that Trump is preparing to go nuclear on Biden in an effort to land the game-changing moment he needs with just over a month to go before Election Day.
Polls show Biden with a comfortable national lead heading into debate night. The Democratic nominee also leads in most of the core swing states that will determine the outcome of the election, and he’s running close to Trump in right-leaning states the president must win to have a shot at reelection.
Many of the dynamics that worked in Trump’s favor during his narrow election victory in 2016 are working against him this time around. Biden has run up a big lead in the polls among independents, suburban women and voters who dislike both candidates. Third-party voting is not expected to be a big factor in 2020.
Democrats see that as a combustible mix of elements for an already unpredictable foe who shows no restraint in his attacks during good times or bad.
“It will be extremely personal because Donald Trump knows no boundaries and he’s desperate,” said Mark Longabaugh, a veteran Democratic political operative. “It’s like cornering a wounded animal. The president is badly wounded and extremely dangerous and you have to be ready for him to lash out. He won’t be able to run on his record so he’ll go for character assassination.”
Democrats say the question for Biden is whether he would benefit from playing dirty against Trump or staying above the fray. Biden’s campaign has largely sought to play it safe for most of the cycle, allowing Trump to be his own worst enemy.
“Avoid getting into the gutter with the guy,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley.
But other Democrats say Biden needs to show he can go toe-to-toe with Trump with personal attacks meant to embarrass the president.
“It’s either the ‘when they go low, we go high’ approach or you just say ‘f— it’ and stick him with the rusty shiv in the back,” said the Democratic strategist. “I’d love to see the rusty shiv in the back but I don’t think that’s what the people counseling Biden are preaching to him.”
Democrats are privately worried that Biden’s polling strength may be an aberration, or at least weaker than it appears.
They say that irrespective of Biden’s perceived strength in the public opinion surveys, he’ll need to go big and refuse to let Trump push him around during what could be the most-watched presidential debate ever.
While Democrats expect Trump’s attacks to be personal, they say Biden can be just as effective with a policy-based approach. They believe Biden can go after Trump for botching the response to the coronavirus pandemic; for being an erratic leader on the world stage; for seeking to confirm a Supreme Court justice who could dismantle the Affordable Care Act; and for sowing discord at a time of heightened racial tensions.
“There will be no rules once Biden walks on to that debate stage,” said Kelly Dietrich, the founder and CEO of the National Democratic Training Committee. “I expect the president will treat this like a reality tv show and make it as salacious as possible. But Biden should tie every attack, over and over again, back to health care, the economy and the pandemic, the issues people care about.”
And strategists say Biden can’t let Trump’s personal attacks get in his head.
Biden has at times had a short fuse on the campaign trail.
“Trump is really good at knocking his opponents off their game, having them be discombobulated,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye. “That is his big strength going into this.”
Republicans say the challenge for Trump will be coming up with something new.
They say Biden will have prepared answers for questions about his mental fitness and Hunter Biden’s business interests because the president and his allies have been making those attacks for months.
The key for Trump will be to come up with a surprising line of attack that forces Biden to think on his feet.
GOP operatives have been passing along recommended new lines of attack to Trump’s senior campaign aides, which they are keeping secret in hopes of producing an embarrassing moment for Biden.
“It’s important to draw Biden into unexpected and uncomfortable waters where he may not have preordained responses,” said one Republican close to the White House. “Get him stumbling, and then draw attention to his stumbles.”
Some Republicans are questioning Trump’s strategy of lowering the bar for Biden by repeatedly attacking him as mentally incompetent.
“You don’t typically see expectation-lowering of your opponent,” said Heye. “Biden doesn’t need to have a home run in these debates, but if he hits three doubles, he’s in very good shape.”
But Republicans say a Biden stumble could reinforce the president’s attacks about his fitness for office, potentially helping the president regain some momentum for the stretch run.
“The message that Trump and Trump surrogates are consistently putting forth is that Joe Biden is nowhere near the top of his game,” Heye said. “And if [Biden] has a Rick PerryRick PerryPresident Trump faces Herculean task in first debate Energy secretary questions consensus that humans cause climate change OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats push resolution to battle climate change, sluggish economy and racial injustice | Senators reach compromise on greenhouse gas amendment stalling energy bill | Trump courts Florida voters with offshore drilling moratorium MORE moment or something like that, then that could cause a reshuffle of things.”
Morgan Chalfant and Brett Samuels contributed.