Trump vs Clinton: Debate will mark biggest moment of election

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WASHINGTON, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Democrat Hillary Clinton, suddenly vulnerable in the presidential race, is under pressure to deliver a strong performance against Republican Donald Trump in their first debate on Monday, a moment that could be the most consequential yet of the 2016 election.

RELATED: 2016 presidential debates

Political veterans involved in preparing for past presidential debates said Clinton should drive home how she would run the country during uncertain times and draw a contrast as the steady, experienced alternative to the untested Trump. For his part, Trump needed to show enough gravitas to convince skeptics that he is ready to be commander in chief, they said.

The 90-minute face-off at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, the first of three debates, takes place at a time when Clinton's once-comfortable lead in opinion polls over the former reality TV star has evaporated.

History shows that a single bad debate performance can alter the trajectory of a U.S. presidential race. Reuters/Ipsos polling shows about 20 percent of the electorate remains undecided, far higher at this stage in the campaign than the 12 percent undecided four years ago.

"I am going to do my very best to communicate as clearly and fearlessly as I can in the face of the insults and the attacks and the bullying and the bigotry that we have seen coming from my opponent," Clinton said on Tuesday on the Steve Harvey Radio show.

RELATED: Hillary Clinton heated debate moments

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Hillary Clinton heated debate moments
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Hillary Clinton heated debate moments
US Democratic presidential candidates Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (L) and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) shake hands at the conclusion of the Texas Democratic Party's presidential candidates debate at the University of Texas at Austin in Austin, Texas, February 21, 2008. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA)
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (L) speaks as Senator Bernie Sanders reacts during a Democratic debate hosted by CNN and New York One at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York April 14, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) listens as Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks during the CNN/Nevada Democratic Party debate at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) in Las Vegas, Nevada November 15, 2007. REUTERS/Steve Marcus (UNITED STATES)
U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) looks out into the crowd before the start of the democratic presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire September 26, 2007. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES)
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gestures at rival Bernie Sanders as she speaks during the Democratic U.S. presidential candidates' debate in Flint, Michigan, March 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Hillary Rodham Clinton (right) speaks during the first New York Senatorial Debate as Representative Rick Lazio (R-NY) (left) watches at WNED public television station in Buffalo, New York, September 13, 2000. Clinton and Lazio are running against each other for the Senate seat from the State of New York being vacated by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. BM/RCS
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (L) speaks as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on as they discuss issues during the Democratic presidential candidates debate sponsored by MSNBC at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire, February 4, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (L) and her Republican challenger John Spencer prepare for their debate in New York October 22, 2006. REUTERS/Keith Bedford (UNITED STATES)
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shares a laugh with fellow candidate and Senator Bernie Sanders at the conclusion of the second official 2016 U.S. Democratic presidential candidates debate in Des Moines, Iowa, November 14, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young (TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) looks on as Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks during the last debate before the Ohio primary in Cleveland, Ohio, February 26, 2008. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA)
US Democratic presidential candidates Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) square off in the last debate before the Ohio primary in Cleveland, Ohio February 26, 2008. REUTERS/Matt Sullivan (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA)
Democratic presidential candidate US Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) gestures as she answers a question during the MSNBC/Nevada Democratic Party presidential candidates debate in Las Vegas January 15, 2008. REUTERS/Steve Marcus (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA)
Democratic presidential candidates Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks as Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) listens during the MSNBC/Nevada Democratic Party Presidential Candidate's debate in Las Vegas January 15, 2008. REUTERS/Steve Marcus (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA)
Democratic presidential candidates Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (L) and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) wait before the South Carolina Democratic party's presidential candidates debate at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, April 26, 2007. REUTERS/Jim Bourg (UNITED STATES)
Republican Senate candidate Rick Lazio (L) and Democratic Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton (R) pose for photogarphers before their debate in a television studio in New York on October 27, 2000. Lazio, a Long Island congressman, and the first lady are vying for the seat held by retiring Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. NBC newsman Gabe Pressman (C) moderated the taped debate. PM/ME
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Anita Dunn, who helped President Barack Obama prepare for debates against Republican nominee John McCain in 2008, said Obama succeeded at their first debate by steering the conversation repeatedly back to the struggling U.S. economy even though the event was supposed to be about foreign policy.

She said she expected Clinton to try to exploit Trump's weaknesses and emphasize her strengths. "The contrast between them is what you want to hone," she said.

The debate will be the best opportunity for two candidates, both widely seen by voters as untrustworthy, to put to rest questions about their fitness for the White House with the Nov. 8 election fast approaching.

Even the candidates' body language will be closely scrutinized, just as it has been in past elections.

Brett O'Donnell, a debate coach who helped President George W. Bush in his 2004 debates and McCain in 2008, said Bush did not put in the necessary work for his first debate against Democrat John Kerry that year and it showed.

Quickly put on the defensive, Bush blinked rapidly and slouched behind the lectern. Kerry was judged the winner. Bush got more serious about the debates after that, O'Donnell said.

Clinton had a shaky performance at a Sept. 7 NBC "Commander in Chief" forum where she became prickly in response to questions about her handling of classified emails while serving as U.S. secretary of state.

"Presentation is very important and Hillary has to work on that. Her presentation at the Commander in Chief forum was not very good. She didn't come off as likable. She came off as sour and defensive," O'Donnell said.

TWO TRUMPS

Clinton is spending most of this week in debate preparations with a small circle of top aides at her home in New York.

Clinton aides said she is preparing for two scenarios: One in which Trump is measured and serious, and another in which he is freewheeling and makes inflammatory personal attacks.

RELATED: RCP swing state poll average - Clinton vs. Trump

Trump relied on his famed spontaneity to fire off one-line zingers to dismantle 16 Republican rivals during the primaries, dispatching "low-energy" Jeb Bush or "lying Ted" Cruz and "little Marco" Rubio. He has repeatedly called Clinton "Crooked Hillary" at rallies.

"You're just not sure who is going to show up," said Jennifer Palmieri, a senior adviser to Clinton. "He may be aggressive or he may lay back. That's hard to game out necessarily so I would say most of the focus is on what points does she want to make."

Rick Lazio, a Republican former congressman from New York, found Clinton a tough opponent when he faced her in a U.S. Senate debate in New York in 2000.

He was seen as bullying, lost the debate and the election, and now says Trump will need to treat Clinton carefully.

"What he has to avoid is a sense that he is name calling, highly disrespectful, badgering, anything like that," he said.

ROLE-PLAYING

Former Republican Senator Judd Gregg, who played Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry in George W. Bush's mock debate sessions in 2000 and 2004, said Bush began preparing in early June unbeknownst to the press and for a while did two practice sessions a day.

For that reason, he said, he suspects Trump is doing more preparation work than he lets on.

"I have to believe he is doing something because it would be foolish to go in there and not practice at hearing lines," he said.

A Republican source close to the campaign said former Fox News chief executive Roger Ailes has been coaching Trump but that the former reality TV star does not want to be over-prepared.

Trump spokesman Jason Miller said Trump is preparing for the debate but "there's nobody who's playing the role of Hillary Clinton."

"Mr. Trump prepares for everything that he does and one of the things to keep in mind going back to the primaries was that everybody said it was the professional politicians who would run the table and it was Mr. Trump who did very well," he said.

(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker and Richard Cowan; Editing by Caren Bohan and Ross Colvin)

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