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Week in politics: Biden-Trump debate will take place with new rules

DON GONYEA, HOST:

For a while, we didn't think it would happen. Now it looks like it will - a presidential debate. President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are set to debate on Thursday night in Atlanta. For those who didn't catch any of the debates the last time around, here's a snippet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: You, the American people. It's about you. That's what we're talking about here.

(CROSSTALK)

DONALD TRUMP: The issue...

(CROSSTALK)

CHRIS WALLACE: All right. That's the end of it... That's the end of the segment. We're moving on.

BIDEN: He didn't take that.

WALLACE: Vice President...

TRUMP: It's...

WALLACE: No.

TRUMP: Can I be honest? It's a very important question...

BIDEN: Try to be honest.

WALLACE: No.

TRUMP: He stood up...

WALLACE: The answer to the question is no.

TRUMP: ...And he threatened Ukraine...

BIDEN: No, I...

WALLACE: Sir.

TRUMP: ...With a billion dollars...

WALLACE: Sir.

TRUMP: ...If you get rid of...

BIDEN: That is absolutely...

WALLACE: You know what - wait...

BIDEN: ...Not true.

TRUMP: ...If you're going to get rid of...

WALLACE: Stop.

TRUMP: Hey, you're doing it...

WALLACE: You're going to have...

TRUMP: ...OK.

BIDEN: Not true.

WALLACE: Gentlemen.

(CROSSTALK)

GONYEA: OK. I guess - I hope you're happy having heard that this morning. That was the first of two debates back in 2020. We are joined now by NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Good morning, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Don, and thanks, I guess...

GONYEA: (Laughter).

ELVING: ...For that edifying blast from the past.

GONYEA: OK, let's let - that's in the past. What will you be looking for in Thursday night's debate? Again, it's the first of what's scheduled to be two debates.

ELVING: I'll be watching Trump's demeanor. He won't have a crowd or even a small studio audience to feed off. So how fast does he come out of the gate? How high does he set his volume, his tone, his tempo? We know that onstage Trump defaults to attack mode. And that made some sense four years ago, when he was something of an underdog. His standing in polls is better now than it was then - slightly ahead of Joe Biden, no worse than a tie overall. But if he really believes Biden is somehow diminished or infirm, he may try to test that right out of the box.

GONYEA: So basic nuts and bolts, what will he try to hammer the president on?

ELVING: He may get quite personal about the president's son, Hunter Biden, or about accusing the senior Biden of orchestrating all the various prosecutions at the state and local level. He may pick up on the drug test theme, suggesting Biden is doped up for the debate, the way Trump has accused him of being for the State of the Union speech. Again, all of this without evidence - not even a pretense of evidence, just the usual appeal to preconceived notions and prejudice.

GONYEA: And what about President Biden? What do you think his strategy is going to be?

ELVING: He may also be quite aggressive, just as he was in calling for this early debate. And recent Biden campaign ads - if you've seen those - have been very direct in calling Trump a criminal. But Biden may also try to pivot to something more positive, claiming credit for slower inflation, lower crime rates, more balanced policies at the border. But, you know, that's a challenge.

The country is in a sour mood. And when that's true, the incumbent president tends to suffer. He may not be responsible for the popularist dyspepsia. But as you know, Don, if you are president, you own it. So counter that, the Biden people seem determined to render Trump unacceptable.

GONYEA: And we're not looking for subtlety at all in this debate.

ELVING: Subtle doesn't cut it in political advertising. Subtle doesn't cut through all the competing noise, and subtle doesn't connect with voters in their real-world concerns.

GONYEA: We should mention here who is not going to be on the stage, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. What happened there?

ELVING: The rules required a candidate have ballot access in enough states with enough electoral college votes to actually get elected president. RFK Jr. apparently has fallen short. Although he says he may still get on the ballot in several more states by Thursday night, CNN says the clock has run out. So this has not been a good month for RFK Jr. His polling has remained weak. And his biggest donor, Timothy Mellon, has just doubled his contribution to Trump-related political action committees.

GONYEA: The Biden and Trump campaigns release fundraising tallies next month in public federal filings. We do know that Trump has raised a lot of cash since those convictions in New York, right?

ELVING: Yes. He's gotten a huge surge in contributions - millions from small-dollar donors who were outraged by what they believed were politically motivated charges. They saw giving even small amounts as their way of fighting back. And there were tens of millions more from Republican high rollers, like the aforementioned Timothy Mellon, who don't want Joe Biden and who have given to Trump or other Republicans before.

GONYEA: We've been talking to NPR's Ron Elving. Ron, thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Don. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.