The first of three high-stakes presidential debates is set for Monday, giving millions of voters who did not cast their ballots for either Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton their closest look at the contest for the White House.
The 90-minute showdown is expected to be one of the most watched presidential debates ever, with an audience that analysts say could venture into Super Bowl-sized ratings by exceeding 100 million viewers.
It offers Trump a tantalizing chance to gain ground against Clinton, who still has a clearer path to electoral map victory in November. Clinton, too, hopes to make up for a dismal September that saw her once-hefty leads over Trump evaporate.
Both candidates are playing up Monday’s showdown at Hofstra University in New York. Clinton, who has appeared in more debates than any presidential candidate in modern history, told supporters in an email that “Monday’s is the most important.”
Trump has previewed his attack lines in interviews, signaling that nothing will be off-limits. And he sent a taunting tweet to “sleep well Hillary,” a reference to her decision to pull back from the campaign trail to prepare for the debate.
Here are some key questions for the debate:
What tone will Trump take?
The New York businessman could be the same freewheeling candidate who insulted and shouted over his rivals in the GOP debates. Or he could showcase more measured language as he tries to convince skeptical Republicans and undecided voters that he is fit for the White House.
Will we hear Trump call his rival “Crooked Hillary” to her face or avoid the name-calling and taunting that helped him lock up the GOP nomination?
Clinton said she was preparing for anything.
“I do not know which Donald Trump will show up,” Clinton said at an August fundraiser in New York. “Maybe he will try to be presidential and try to convey a gravity that he hasn’t done before? Or will he come in and try to insult and try to score some points?”
Will Clinton be forced on the defensive?
For months, Clinton’s campaign has battered and bruised Trump with ads featuring deprecating comments he made about women, immigrants and others. And she’s hoping to remind a vast audience of some of his ribald rhetoric again.
But Trump plans to parry her attacks with his own onslaught, raising the specter that the 90 minutes could be a tit for tat. He told Fox News that he is salivating at the chance for a one-on-one duel.
“I can talk about her deleting emails after she gets a subpoena from Congress and lots of other things. I can talk about her record, which is a disaster,” Trump said. “I can talk about all she’s done to help ISIS become the terror that they’ve become.”
Is Trump going to play the ‘rigged’ card?
It seems likely. In the days leading up to the debate, the Republican asserted that “the system is being rigged” and that NBC anchor Lester Holt, who is moderating the event, is primed “to go after Trump.”
“I think Lester Holt will be very fair,” Trump said at a North Carolina rally. “But a lot of people will be watching to see if that’s true.”
The tactic could ratchet up pressure on Holt and the hosts of the next two debates to give Trump better treatment. Moderators came under fire in the GOP primary debates for soft questioning and grandstanding, and “Today” show host Matt Lauer was criticized for going too easy on Trump in a presidential forum this month.
How will the candidates handle the latest national tragedies?
The terror bombings in New York and New Jersey and the police shootings in Charlotte, N.C., and Tulsa, Okla., in the past week have refocused both campaigns on national security and criminal justice reform, and both divides seem likely to surface at the debate.
Clinton has accused Trump of being ill-equipped to deter terrorism and giving “aid and comfort” to the Islamic State with his rhetoric. And she called for a restoring of the “bonds of trust” between police officers and their communities after the unrest in Charlotte.
Trump has linked the terror attacks to what he calls an “extremely open immigration system.” And he endorsed a controversial stop-and-frisk policy to crack down on violent crime in Chicago and other cities.
You can expect both candidates to come armed with sound bite-ready responses.
Can either improve their likability?
The two are routinely ranked as the most unlikable presidential candidates in modern U.S. history. National polls show more than half of likely voters don’t like either candidate, while an Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey had both tied with unfavorable ratings in Georgia of 58 percent.
Monday’s showcase could offer a chance for both to change some minds, though analysts are split on whether debates actually change any minds.
“These two candidates are so well-known, and their images are almost set in stone, so the concrete started to harden sooner than it usually does,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. “It will be tough to change people’s minds once they have made them up.”
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