Trump vs Hillary: The Debate Of The Century… Gets Even Wilder

There is nothing we can say to underscore the importance of tomorrow’s debate that can come close to Goldman’s characterization of what is about to be unleashed in just over 24 hours. As Goldman’s David Kostin puts it, the “upcoming debate ranks as the biggest match-up since the Mayweather/Pacquiao bout”…

… adding that “the first US Presidential debate will take place on Monday, September 26 and viewership may approach Super Bowl proportions with an audience of perhaps 100 million.

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And it may get even wilder.

As we reported over the weekend, as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump got ready to face off in the first – and perhaps most anticipated in US history – presidential debate, their campaigns were mired in a controversy over guests.  The candidates have been accused of using their debate invitations to get under their opponent’s skin — and appear to be trying to outdo each other with their potential guests.

It started when billionaire Mark Cuban, formerly a supporter who then flipped and became an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, last week announced he had accepted an invitation from Clinton’s campaign to sit front-row at the debate on Monday night. In response, Trump threatened to bring Gennifer Flowers, a woman with whom former President Bill Clinton had an extramarital affair. The GOP nominee tweeted Saturday if “dopey Mark Cuban of failed Benefactor fame wants to sit in the front row, perhaps I will put Gennifer Flowers right alongside him.”

As reported previously, Flowers was eager to accept the invitation: “Hi Donald. You know I’m in your corner and will definitely be at the debate,” she tweeted in response. Bill Clinton testified under oath in 1998, saying he had a sexual affair with Flowers.

However, speculation that Hillary would be eyeballing his husband’s former mistress in the front row quickly died earlier today when members of Trump’s campaign on Sunday denied that Flowers was officially invited and said she will not attend. Trump’s VP candidate Mike Pence confirmed Flowers wouldn’t be at the debate, and said his running mate’s tweet was meant to mock Clinton for “trying to distract attention away from this moment in our national life where the American people are going to see a strong contrast” between both major party’s nominees.

The Indiana governor criticized the Democratic nominee for extending an invitation to Cuban. “Hillary Clinton apparently thinks this is an episode of ‘Shark Tank,’ but this is America,” Pence said on “Fox News Sunday,” referring to the ABC reality-business show Cuban has appeared on as an investor. 

“It’s serious business” he added as we reported earlier, flipping the table on Hillary. 

Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, echoed Pence’s comments, saying Flowers isn’t expected to be at the presidential debate as Trump’s guest. “Mr. Trump was putting them on notice that we could certainly invite guests that make it into the head of Hillary Clinton,” Conway said Sunday morning.

Meanwhile, debate commission Co-Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf warned both major party’s nominees against using their invites to try to disrupt the debate.   

“We’re going to frown upon — I will tell you this right now — whether or not a Republican or Democrat or anyone else attempts by use of the tickets in placing people in a front-row or not, to try to impact the debate,” he said Saturday on CNN. Then again, having guest “impact the debate” is precisely what America’s population appears to want, judging by the feverish response over the weekend to the tentative proposals to take the mudslining campaign between the two to an unprecedented level. 

“It’s wrong. We would frown upon Mr. Cuban being in the front row if his purpose is to somehow disrupt the debate. Likewise, if Mr. Trump was going to put someone in the front row to try to impact things.”

Quote by The Hill, Fahrenkopf said the debate commission has been working with the both campaigns’ staff and doesn’t expect any problems.  “They’re approaching this in a very dignified manner — the way I think it should be approached,” he said.

That said, on Sunday, members of Clinton’s campaign defended the decision to invite Cuban to the debate, touting his accomplishments and denying it’s an attempt to annoy Trump. Clinton’s chief strategist, Joel Benenson, called Cuban a “successful businessman” whose economic beliefs often match Clinton’s. “I think it’s legitimate to have a businessperson sitting there who’s been advocating for you because of your economic policies,” Benenson said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Meanwhile, whether Cuban is present or not, Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, praised the GOP nominee’s debate skills, calling him a “brilliant debater.”  “He’s like the Babe Ruth of debating. He really shows up and swings and does a great job,” she said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

Monday’s debate, moderated by NBC News’s Lester Holt, is expected to be the most watched ever, with an audience that could exceed 100 million people.

An audience of that size would be something never seen before in U.S. politics.

Which is also why most of the attention will be on Trump. The Republican presidential nominee has never debated another candidate one-on-one in his short political life. Trump has also never debated in such a quiet setting, the Hill adds.

As the GOP primary debates sometimes resembled wrestling matches, with an audience applauding and booing loudly depending on what it heard, Trump – a consummate entertainer and TV personality – seized on many of those moments during the primary campaign to turn the tide.

This time, however, it will be different: At Hofstra University in New York on Monday night, the crowd will be directed to not applaud, cheer or boo, and it will at times feel like two people and a moderator talking in front of a quiet theater audience. 

How Trump handles this different setting remains to be seen, as experts say the primary debate format played right into his wheelhouse.  “The very crowded stage served him very well,” said David Birdsell, a debate expert and professor at Baruch College, of the primary debate.  “He was able to pick fights, land a quick one-off and then fade into the background, becoming a headline without a lengthy examination of his record and changing policy positions.”

Trump’s most notable debate moments came not during a protracted back-and-forth on policy, but when he deployed quick one-liners that disarmed his rivals.  While some opponents, like Carly Fiorina at the start and Ted Cruz down the stretch, chose to attack him head on, Trump benefited when other candidates’ battles drew the spotlight, allowing him to pick his spots to strike hard and then retreat.

Additionally, the events themselves will be significantly longer. Networks loaded up the two-hour primary debates with commercial breaks, giving candidates time to collect themselves as well as shortening the event.  But the general election debate will be a 90-minute commercial-free event, testing the concentration of the Trump in his first one-on-one debate. As the Hill points out, that could put Trump at a disadvantage, both as a candidate outmatched by his opponent’s policy grasp and with a penchant for controversial comments.  

Trump’s debate prep appears to be less concerned about the former while looking to control the latter. Trump is reportedly taking a more hands-off approach with debate preparations, eschewing full-length test runs and deep-dives into briefing books, according to the New York Times. Aides even have expressed concern that Trump is downplaying the difficulties of staying on top of his game for the full 90 minutes.

 

Instead, Trump, who once owned a United States Football League team, is scouring game tape, footage from old Clinton debates, in the hopes of finding weaknesses to exploit. 

 

And his advisers are cautioning him to avoid falling into Clinton’s traps meant to frame him as unstable, and instead focus on hitting his campaign’s major themes.

Then again, underestimating Trump has proven to be a failure in the past: those who took on Trump in the primary debates caution against taking him lightly—predictions that the Trump train would derail when the political novice took the debate stage fell flat. Frank Sadler, Carly Fiorina’s campaign manager during the primary race, believes it would be foolish to “underestimate Trump.”  “There’s this general thought that he can’t sit there for 90 minutes and answer policy questions in an effective manner,” he said.  “He’s been effective with the media since he came down that escalator. To think in the brand new format that he would be at a disadvantage, I don’t agree.”

There is also Hillary’s health and stamina: following her recent health shocks, it remains to be seen if Hillary can muster anywhere close to 90 minutes of straight debate without breaks, something that Trump can surely use to his advnatage. 

Furthermore, many critics point to Trump’s impulsive nature as potentially his undoing, as his campaign’s greatest missteps have come thanks to controversial comments made while deviating from message. But the potential weakness could also turn out to be a key asset.

Those close to Clinton have told The Hill that she is preparing for “multiple Trumps,” an acknowledgement that they aren’t quite sure who will be standing across the stage from her.  “That’s the big unknown here, and it’s a case where it’s making her prep a little bit harder because she’s got to prepare for different versions of Trump—subdued Trump, aggressive Trump,” MSNBC’s Chuck Todd said Friday on “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”

“The Trump campaign is enjoying this.”

What Trump also has going for him are low expectations: his limited debate experience is perhaps the reason why the latest poll by Morning Consult has Trump losing with 29% of registered voters predicting a victory for Trump and 36% predicting Clinton will win. To be sure, Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri called low expectations “my biggest concern” during a chat with reporters in the days ahead of the debate on the campaign’s plane, according to ABC News.

It is understandable: coming out of nowhere, and underestimated from day one, Trump is now in a “dead heat” with Hillary according even to the Washington Post.

As The Hill concludes, multiple experts have compared the matchup to the 2000 debate, where a wonky Al Gore showed a mastery of policy but rubbed the audience the wrong way as he audibly sighed through George W. Bush’s answers. Bush emerged looking competent, compared to the expectations, and significantly more likable than Gore. And ultimately, he edged out the sitting vice president.  “You have a very similar contest here,” Birdsell said.

“You have a candidate not expected to be able to talk about policy facing one expected to do an absolutely bang up job. The one who did an OK job could up being seen as the winner because he didn’t just flame out entirely.”

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Oh, and Al Gore lost.

Finally, here is a brief visual summary of the key historical moments in presidential debate history.

 


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