The 'Meanwhile in America' pregame guide to zingers, tells and expectations in the first presidential debate

This was adapted from the September 30 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.

It’s showtime.

The first, hotly anticipated debate between President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden is only hours away. It’s one of the President’s last chances to turn around a campaign in which he is currently trailing, just five weeks before the vote. To help you decipher the tells for who won and what it means, Meanwhile in America has put together a pregame viewing guide — read it below:
The first 40 minutes
This is the first of three presidential debates. Expect to see the biggest audience and the greatest pressure coalesce in the first 40 minutes on Tuesday — opinions will form early about candidates, before viewers start drifting off and the contenders get mired in squabbling. A strong start for Biden, who wants to reassure voters he’s fit and ready to serve, could be a crucial campaign development.
    The President is a showman and a below-the-belt fighter. So he’s expected to try every trick in the book to get his opponent off his game and perhaps to snap in an angry riposte that could raise concerns over temperament. Expect Trump to focus on the dealings of Biden’s son Hunter in Ukraine (get the facts here), and to blame the former vice president, a Washington fixture, for everything that went wrong in the last 50 years. But Biden is leading and if he can keep his cool, the White House looms.
    The expectations game
    Expectations are key in a debate. Generally, rivals talk up each other in the hope that stumbles will be exaggerated. But Trump, 74, has spent months blasting his 77-year-old foe as doddering, so even an average showing by the former vice president could vault this bar. And an uncharacteristically statesmanlike showing by Trump tonight could confound expectations and reassure some of his wavering voters.
    Is Trump ready?
    First-term Presidents notoriously suffer from a glass jaw in reelection season debates. Used to flattery and people who tell them what they want to hear, they don’t take kindly to someone getting up in their cage. There are plenty of signs to worry Trump fans after his weak performances in several recent interviews. But the President has spent his life fighting dirty and may be just fine.
    What price truth?
    If past form is a guide, pretty much everything you hear from Trump won’t be true. He is likely to misrepresent his performance during the pandemic, to fog up the New York Times revelations about his taxes and to accuse Biden of all sorts of things he never said or did. If debate moderator Chris Wallace or the Democratic nominee himself spends the evening fact-checking the President, they won’t have time for anything else. But to let it all slide would be to let Trump get away with rhetorical larceny.
    Every candidate seeks the crushing put-down that can crystalize the election season in a phrase. Ronald Reagan dipped into his showbiz background in each of his presidential elections to come up with rhetorical haymakers that wounded Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. Most often, precooked lines come across as forced, but Biden and Trump both have a history of coining devastating zingers and will be looking for a knockout punch.
    Feeling the pain
    It’s going to be a long night for those who moan that modern politics is all personality and no policy. While we’ll hear about climate change, worsening China relations and health care, the takeaways will be dominated by how each candidate behaved and forged a connection with the audience. That’s not all bad — after all, the ability to show empathy amid a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans ought to be a requirement for the job. And Americans are not just picking a policy grinder, they are also choosing a head of state and an avatar of the national mood.
      The winner may not be the winner
      By the end of the night, everyone will want to know who won. But it’s not as simple as that. Often it takes several days for conventional wisdom and voter opinion to coalesce, as the debate is replayed on TV sound bites, chewed over by pundits and put through a cultural wringer on shows like “Saturday Night Live.” And often, debates are not a great indicator of who wins the election. Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton probably won their respective presidential debates. But George W. Bush (twice) and Donald Trump ended up as president.

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