Team Biden bets an unfiltered Trump at the debate can shake up the race

Then-President Donald Trump and then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden debate on Oct. 22, 2020. (Jim Bourg / Pool via Getty Images) (Jim Bourg)

In many ways, the June 27 debate can’t come quickly enough for President Joe Biden’s campaign.

In a race in which Donald Trump’s criminal trial blotted out the sun for weeks, in which Biden struggled in most battleground polls for months and in which Democrats insisted potential voters have forgotten what Trump’s White House years really looked like, Team Biden sees the chance for him to go up against his nemesis as a probable catalyzing moment.

That is particularly true if Biden shows up with the same kind of energy he brought to his State of the Union address in March, many Democrats say.

Finally, Democrats and Biden officials hope, the public will be able to put aside the caricatures of the candidates and instead view them side by side.

“The ‘out of sight, out of mind’ concept of President Trump is real. I think people forget the way he interacts, the way he communicates, the inaccuracies of the things he says and promises to the American people,” said Democratic strategist Amanda Loveday, an adviser to the pro-Biden political action committee Unite the Country. “A debate like this deletes distraction and allows for people to see them next to each other and answer questions back to back and be able to compare them.”

Inside the campaign, aides believe Biden walks on the stage with the upper hand. Mostly, his mandate will be to let “Trump be Trump,” which they believe will reveal extreme leanings and a less stable Trump than four years ago. Biden is likely to cast Trump as obsessed with revenge and retribution and hark to the political violence in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, a campaign official said.

Biden, now on back-to-back European trips, is to return to the U.S. only to head to Los Angeles for fundraisers. Once Biden is back at the White House, a source with knowledge of his debate prep said, he is expected to have a 10-day window to hunker down and engage in extensive preparatory sessions. They could include more intensive sessions at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland.

Trump’s team has cast Biden as an inept politician who can barely follow a teleprompter and whose leadership includes entangling the U.S. in two foreign wars.

“This is going to be the most important debate since JFK-Richard Nixon” in 1960, said Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster who regularly holds focus groups with voters. Luntz said the first debate could provide a pivotal moment that’s seared into the minds of the public in a race riddled with accusations from each side with little ability to compare the two candidates on the same stage.

We all get a chance to see whether Joe Biden is as feeble as Trump says he is. We all get a chance to see whether Donald Trump is as unhinged as Joe Biden says he is,” Luntz said. “This is our chance to test the worst accusations of the candidates against each other.”

For months, the frame of the race has leaned more toward a referendum on Biden, with aides and allies frustrated he wasn’t getting credit for a strong economy and for advancing policy proposals in support of reproductive rights or bolstering infrastructure, forgiving federal student loans and capping the cost of insulin. Biden’s campaign has spent millions of dollars on ads attacking Trump, including over his role in overturning Roe v. Wade. Biden has even tried to address one of his biggest vulnerabilities by taking a more aggressive stance on immigration; he signed an executive order designed to severely limit the number of migrants coming over the southern border.

It has all done little to move Biden’s polling numbers. Instead, polls have shown Biden losing support to Trump, including among Latino and Black voters. In many surveys, potential voters have referred to greater confidence in Trump heading the economy — a stance, Democrats believe, shaped by short memories.

In an interview Thursday with ABC News, Biden laid out his goals for the debate to anchor David Muir.

“Say what I think. Let him say what he thinks. The things he says are off the wall: ‘I want to be a dictator on day one.’ I want to move in a direction where he talks about, you know, suspending the Constitution,” Biden said. “All I have to do is hear what he says — remind people what he says and what I believe and what he believes. He’s about him. I’m about the country.”

Democrats refer to the first debate in 2020 between Biden and Trump in Cleveland, holding it up as an example of the most likely and advantageous dynamic for Biden. Then, Trump acted somewhat frenetically, frequently interrupting Biden. Days later, Trump was taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, diagnosed with Covid-19. Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows later said in a book that Trump had tested positive three days before the debate, which Trump called “fake news.”

Throughout that 2020 debate, Trump frequently ignored moderator Chris Wallace, talking over him and raising his voice, and he repeatedly attacked Biden. At one point, Trump went after Biden’s son Hunter and mocked his cocaine use, a moment largely viewed as having backfired after Biden turned the moment into one in which a father spoke of having a son battling addiction. At another point, Trump was asked to denounce white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys, and instead he said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” The group celebrated Trump’s shoutout.

“Trump really did himself a disservice during those debates. He’s never really demonstrated discipline, because he only knows how to produce a circus and a show,” said Michael LaRosa, former spokesman for first lady Jill Biden. LaRosa agreed that Biden had the upper hand and said he would be best served by not being baited into responding to every insult or slight. “When Trump tries to goad or when Trump interrupts, allow Trump to look juvenile, to look rude, to come across as obnoxious. Allow his obnoxiousness to come through the television screen.”

Trump’s campaign has repeatedly portrayed Biden as weak and scripted, with Trump himself calling him “Sleepy Joe.” After Biden was roundly praised for a high-energy State of the Union speech, Republicans wondered whether they had set the bar too low for him. It led Trump, without any evidence, to accuse Biden later of being on drugs. He then demanded a drug test before the debate, which he also did in 2020. In response to questions about the debate from NBC News, Trump’s campaign again, without evidence, accused Biden of using “chemicals.”

“President Trump takes on numerous tough interviews every single week and delivers lengthy rally speeches while standing, demonstrating elite stamina,” Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller said in a statement. “He does not need to be programmed by staff or shot up with chemicals like Joe Biden does.”

In the end, Democrats maintain that it’s Trump who has the most to lose going into the debate because he is now benefiting from the prevailing narrative in the presidential race that things were better under him. And that provides an opportunity for Biden.

Angelo Carusone, president of the left-leaning journalism watchdog group Media Matters for America, said most people get their impressions from snippets of news or shortened videos on social media, which depict Biden as a doddering old man, walking slowly or stumbling over his words.

“I don’t think that he’s going to come off as diminished and meek. My sense is that people will see that comparison and they’ll hear somebody making coherent arguments and Trump saying some really random stuff,” he said.

Carusone, who has watched hundreds of Trump rallies since 2016, dozens of them this year, insists it’s Trump who has deteriorated — not Biden. “Seeing him unfiltered for a little bit of time is important for people to at least be able to process just how much he’s changed. And it has gotten worse over time; he has declined. And in some ways, it has gotten more rabid and intense.”