Elections

Demeanor, truth, specifics: Key things to watch for in the first presidential debate

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to voters during a rally at Frontline Outreach and Youth Center in Orlando, Florida.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to voters during a rally at Frontline Outreach and Youth Center in Orlando, Florida. The Washington Post

Donald Trump, let’s face it, is the true star of the first presidential debate. Love him or hate him, we can’t avert our eyes from the showman, especially on an occasion like Monday’s faceoff. It could be a turning point in this bizarre, dispiriting and very close presidential election, and because of Trump, we know anything can happen.

Here are four things to watch:

Trump’s demeanor

Amazingly, when most of the country feels America is heading in the wrong direction, Trump has managed to let this campaign become a referendum on him and his fitness for office, rather than a referendum on the agenda of Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.

Monday is his best chance to convince the small sliver of the electorate that still is undecided or not yet entirely sold on either candidate that it would not be foolhardy to put Trump in the White House. Monday is his opportunity to reassure doubters and skeptics, just as an underestimated John F. Kennedy did against Richard Nixon in 1960 and Ronald Reagan did against Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Clinton supporters are right to be worried, given the low expectations for Trump and Clinton’s reputation as a strong debater.

“The challenge is that the bar for Trump to appear 'normal’ is so low, if he just shows up and manages not to look like a jerk, it’s a victory for his campaign,” said Karl Koch, a Tampa consultant and veteran of several Democratic presidential campaigns. “America is so conditioned for him to appear clueless and obnoxious, if he manages to only appear uninformed and arrogant, he somehow seems presidential.”

That’s a bit of a stretch, but not by much. This is a Republican candidate who made a reference to his genitalia in a nationally televised primary debate this year and is famously thin-skinned. Just keeping his answers PG-rated and avoiding major gaffes over the night’s six, 15-minute segments may be seen as a victory for Trump.

“This debate could determine who the next president will be,” said Nick DiCeglie, the Pinellas Republican Party chairman. “I believe Mr. Trump will show he is more than qualified to lead this country to greatness again. ... I expect him to be very presidential and avoid any landmines Hillary might have for him.”

Staying relatively muted for 90 minutes may be easier for Trump than demonstrating broad knowledge and depth. This is his first one-on-one debate, which means he will be expected to speak at some length about an array of complicated issues.

Clinton’s demeanor

High expectations are never helpful and Clinton has them. She is not an especially exciting stump speaker, but debates have been a vehicle to highlight her sheer competence and understanding of an array of issues large and small.

Command of the issues does not necessarily lead to successful debates, however. Al Gore’s condescending sighs and obnoxious wandering into George W. Bush’s personal space made him the butt of jokes in 2000.

Clinton wants to needle Trump and goad him into losing his cool. If she encounters a mild-mannered Trump, she may have to point out his divisive and racially charged episodes to prevent him from reinventing himself before the largest audience of the campaign. But overdoing it could backfire. The Republicans who tried to aggressively attack Trump or match his insults in the primary debates, including Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, did their candidacies little good.

Likewise, trying to deliver a memorable line a la “Where’s the beef?” or “You’re no Jack Kennedy” may come off scripted and fake for a candidate who already suffers an authenticity gap with the far less scripted Trump.

Ana Cruz, a Democratic consultant and longtime Clinton supporter in Tampa, hopes the nominee simply shows the audience who she is and says the contrasts with Trump will be clear.

“Hillary Clinton simply needs to be Hillary Clinton during the debates,” said Cruz. “She has the intelligence, fortitude, experience to not just hold the office of the president, but to be a respected leader.”

In some ways, she has the harder job. Trump’s biggest obstacle is the perception that he may be temperamentally unfit to serve. Hers is the perception that she’s dishonest, which is harder to knock down in a televised debate.

Alan Clendenin of Tampa, vice chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, said the goal should be not just to impress viewers and court swing voters, but to fire up supporters.

“The majority of voters have already made up their minds. Mission accomplished can be awarded to the candidate that motivates their voters to get off the couch and show up at the polls,” said Clendenin. “Secretary Clinton has the experience and demeanor to occupy the White House on day one. To get there she needs to motivate the voters on a personal level.”

Also, given the rumors and questions about her health, the last thing Clinton needs is a coughing fit or signs of fatigue while standing at the podium for 90 minutes without commercial breaks at New York’s Hofstra University.

The truth

Moderator Lester Holt has a tough job. His NBC colleague Matt Lauer was panned for not correcting Trump’s false statement during a recent candidate forum that he publicly opposed the Iraq invasion from the start. Now Holt is being pressed in varied ways — to aggressively challenge the candidates and to remain in the background.

Trump has a pattern of making false statements (including during televised debates) on everything from crime rates in America to Obama’s relationship with ISIS to Clinton’s child care agenda.

Whether he continues — and whether Holt and/or Clinton aggressively challenge his assertions — could go a long way to setting the tone and rhythm of the night.

Specifics

One of the countless unusual aspects of this campaign is that the Democratic nominee appears to be more of a military hawk than the Republican.

Trump has been vague, but he has called Clinton “trigger happy” and denounced America’s “nation-building” policies, though he also has said America should have seized Iraq’s oil and deployed troops to protect those assets. He has been complimentary of Russian President Vladimir Putin and critical of NATO allies. The debate should be the best opportunity yet to flesh out Trump’s foreign policy agenda, including his secret plan to defeat ISIS.

Clinton has offered up loads of policy papers, but has been far less clear about her over-arching vision for America. The pro-Clinton TV ads barraging Florida’s I-4 corridor have overwhelmingly been about depicting Trump as an obnoxious and offensive jerk, rather than telling us what she wants to do for America. Clinton’s task is not only to help drive home the message that Trump is unfit to lead but also to show why a Hillary Clinton presidency would be more than a third term for the Obama agenda and Washington gridlock.

We’re likely to hear substance Monday night , even if the expected ratings will be all about Americans tuning in for a potential train wreck.

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes

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