5 debate storylines to watch

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HEMPSTEAD, NY -- Well, we're finally here: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump tonight square off in their first presidential debate at Hofstra University, making it arguably the most consequential night so far of the 2016 election. The stakes are enormous, with recent polls showing the national race ranges from a six-point lead for Clinton (in the NBC/WSJ) to a dead-even tie (in Bloomberg's). There are five storylines we're watching heading into the debate.

Which Donald Trump shows up? After observing him over the last 15 months, including during the GOP debate season, we're pretty confident who Trump is -- he's aggressive, loaded with zingers and oppo hits, and shaky on policy. But there the possibility that a different Trump could show up tonight. But if we were in Las Vegas, we'd bet heavily on the Trump we know showing up. (Just see Trump's Gennifer Flowers tweet from over the weekend.)

SEE ALSO: You'll never guess the most-watched presidential debate in history

Which Hillary Clinton comes to play? Meanwhile, we've spent the last eight years watching Clinton at presidential debates, and she's good. (Remember, she's a former lawyer.) Clinton was at her absolutely best last October in that first Democratic debate, where she ran circles around Bernie Sanders and her other opponents. But Clinton also has had some uneven performances -- think of that Democratic debate in Iowa right after the Paris terrorist attacks. And there was her game-changing rough moment when Tim Russert asked her about drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants in Oct. 2008.

MORE: A look back at recent presidential debates

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Looking back at recent presidential debates
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Looking back at recent presidential debates
President Barack Obama (L) and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney share a laugh at the end of the first presidential debate in Denver, U.S., October 3, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/File Photo
President Barack Obama answers a question as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens during the first 2012 U.S. presidential debate in Denver, U.S., October 3, 2012. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo
U.S. Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ) (near) answers a question as Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) looks at him during their debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., October 7, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Young/File Photo
US Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ) reacts to almost heading the wrong way off the stage after shaking hands with Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) at the conclusion of their final 2008 presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., October 15, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/File Photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain (L) and U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama (R) take part in their first 2008 U.S. presidential debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, U.S., September 26, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/File Photo
Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush (R) and Democratic presidential candidate Vice President Al Gore speak during their presidential debate at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, U.S., October 3, 2000. REUTERS/Peter Morgan/File Photo
Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (L) makes a point while answering a question during the first presidential debate with U.S. President George W. Bush, at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, U.S., September 30, 2004. REUTERS/Marc Serota/File Photo
President George W. Bush reacts during responses by Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry during their debate at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, U.S., September 30, 2004. REUTERS/Jim Young/File Photo
Republican presidential candidate and Texas Governor George W. Bush (L) and Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Vice President Al Gore both gesture toward moderator Jim Lehrer during the town hall-style presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, U.S., October 17, 2000. REUTERS/Jeff Mitchell/File Photo
Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush (C) laughs while Democratic presidential nominee Vice President Al Gore (R) and moderator Jim Lehrer (C) respond during the second presidential debate at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, U.S., October 11, 2000. REUTERS/Jeff Mitchell/File Photo
Republican presidential nominee Texas Governor George W. Bush (L) and Democratic presidential nominee and Vice President Al Gore debate during the last of three U.S. presidential debates at Washington University in St. Louis, U.S., October 17, 2000. REUTERS/Jeff Mitchell/File Photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
President Bill Clinton (R) strolls away from his podium to talk to the audience as Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole watches during their second and final debate in San Diego, California, U.S., October 16, 1996. REUTERS/Win McNamee/File Photo
Democratic Presidential nominee Governor Bill Clinton (L) Independent candidate Ross Perot (C) and President George Bush laugh at the conclusion of their Presidential debate in East Lansing, Michigan, U.S., October 19th, 1992. REUTERS/Mark Cardwell/File Photo
Democratic presidential candidate Govenor Bill Clinton makes a point as Republican candidate President George Bush disagrees, during their third and final presidential debate in East Lansing, Michigan, U.S., October 19th, 1992. REUTERS/Mark Cardwell/File Photo
President Clinton reaches out to hug his wife Hillary following his debate with Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole at the University of San Diego in San Diego, California, U.S., October 16, 1996. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn/File Photo
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How does Trump fare in his first one-on-one debate?

That's right. Tonight will be the first time that Trump has ever debated an opponent one-on-one. Indeed, he thrived (and sometimes simply survived) during the GOP debate season with as many as eight to 10 other Republicans on the stage. So even though he was always in the spotlight, he only had to speak 12-18 minutes in a two-hour debate. Tonight will be different.

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GOP debate at University of Miami
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GOP debate at University of Miami
Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks during the CNN Debate in Miami on March 10, 2016. / AFP / RHONA WISE (Photo credit should read RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during the CNN Debate in Miami on March 10, 2016. / AFP / RHONA WISE (Photo credit should read RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican Presidential candidate, Florida Senator Marco Rubio speaks during the CNN Debate in Miami on March 10, 2016. / AFP / RHONA WISE (Photo credit should read RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images)
CORAL GABLES, FL - MARCH 10: Republican presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), are seen during the CNN, Salem Media Group, The Washington Times Republican Presidential Primary Debate on the campus of the University of Miami on March 10, 2016 in Coral Gables, Florida. The candidates continue to campaign before the March 15th Florida primary. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
CORAL GABLES, FL - MARCH 10: Republican presidential candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Ohio Gov. John Kasich listen to the national anthem before the CNN, Salem Media Group, The Washington Times Republican Presidential Primary Debate on the campus of the University of Miami on March 10, 2016 in Coral Gables, Florida. The candidates continue to campaign before the March 15th Florida primary. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
CORAL GABLES, FL - MARCH 10: Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), along with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) (not seen) listen to the national anthem before the start of the CNN, Salem Media Group, The Washington Times Republican Presidential Primary Debate on the campus of the University of Miami on March 10, 2016 in Coral Gables, Florida. The candidates continue to campaign before the March 15th Florida primary. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
CORAL GABLES, FL - MARCH 10: Republican presidential candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) are seen during the CNN, Salem Media Group, The Washington Times Republican Presidential Primary Debate on the campus of the University of Miami on March 10, 2016 in Coral Gables, Florida. The candidates continue to campaign before the March 15th Florida primary. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
CORAL GABLES, FL - MARCH 10: Republican presidential candidates, Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Ohio Gov. John Kasich stand on stage as they arrive for the CNN, Salem Media Group, The Washington Times Republican Presidential Primary Debate on the campus of the University of Miami on March 10, 2016 in Coral Gables, Florida. The candidates continue to campaign before the March 15th Florida primary. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Republican Presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz speaks during the CNN Republican Presidential Debate March 10, 2016 in Miami, Florida. / AFP / RHONA WISE (Photo credit should read RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican Presidential candidates (L-R) Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich participate in the CNN Presidential Debate March 10, 2016 in Miami. / AFP / RHONA WISE (Photo credit should read RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images)
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How does Clinton fare in facing off against the ultimate Alpha Male?

In his preview of tonight's debate, the Atlantic's James Fallows interviewed the famous anthropologist Jane Goodall. "In many ways the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals," Goodall said. "In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks. The more vigorous and imaginative the display, the faster the individual is likely to rise in the hierarchy, and the longer he is likely to maintain that position." How Clinton responds could be one of the most important parts to tonight's debate.

Clinton's 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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What happens in the first 30-40 minutes?

As Politico's Shane Goldmacher observes, history has shown that most memorable moments of a debate typically happen early. "That's when Al Gore first sighed, Mitt Romney knocked President Obama on his heels, and Marco Rubio, earlier this year, glitched in repeating the same talking point — over and over and over. It's when Gore tried, unsuccessfully, to invade George W. Bush's space, Richard Nixon was first caught wiping away sweat with a handkerchief (during the moderators' introductions!) and Gerald Ford in 1976 made the ill-advised declaration that, 'There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.'"

Do the debates really matter?

That's the fascinating question our colleague Dante Chinni asks. And his answer: not really. "Looking at pre-debate NBC News/Wall Street Journal presidential polls and the final election results since 1992, there is only one campaign where the debate may have made a serious difference — 2000. In every other case, the candidate that led going into the debates wound up winning on Election Day. And, to be fair about 2000, Democrat Al Gore actually did get more votes than Republican George W. Bush (but lost the Electoral College), so technically — where the popular vote is concerned — the numbers above show a perfect 6 for 6. The candidate that led in the poll going into the debate period won the election." On the other hand, 34% of voters in our new NBC/WSJ poll said that debates will be either "extremely important" or "quite important" in deciding their vote. Also, don't be surprised if the third-party vote in polls starts to drop after tonight. And how that vote gets distributed in the post-debate polls will be important to watch.

Playing the expectations game

NBC's Alex Seitz-Wald and Benjy Sarlin tee up tonight's debate. "The good news for Trump, Republicans say, is that the expectations for his performance are about at rock bottom. While he's been more a more disciplined campaigner in recent weeks, he's struggled to stay on message and answer substantive policy questions. He also has never faced the bright spotlight of a one-on-one debate. His campaign, looking to reinforce his underdog image, claims he's eschewing typical debate preparations... Clinton, meanwhile, faces sky-high expectations. She's an experienced debater, having participated in nearly 40 debates since her first campaign for senate in New York 16 years ago, and has been holding marathon prep sessions at a debate camp set up in a hotel near her Chappaqua home."

The skinny on tonight's debate

The debate starts at 9:00 pm ET, and it lasts 90 minutes - divided into six 15-minute segments. Clinton gets the first question of the debate (on the result of a coin toss). About 1,000 audience members will be in attendance, and they are encouraged to remain quiet. We've got everything else you need to know about all the presidential debates, all in one place -- nbcnews.com/debates.

On the trail

Tim Kaine campaigns in Florida, making stops in Lakeland and Orlando ... And Mike Pence holds a rally in Milford, NH at 1:30 pm ET.

Countdown to VP debate: 8 days

Countdown to second presidential debate: 13 days

Countdown to third presidential debate: 23 days

Countdown to Election Day: 43 days

RELATED: Topics for the first 2016 presidential debate

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