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How tonight's debate differs from the last time Trump and Biden faced off

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

After weeks of hype, the big day is finally here - the first presidential debate of 2024. Former President Donald Trump and President Biden will meet on a CNN set, without an audience, for 90 minutes. They debated twice ahead of the 2020 election, and the first one devolved quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Supreme Court justices - radical left...

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The question...

TRUMP: Who is on...

BIDEN: Will you shut up, man?

TRUMP: Listen, who is on your list, Joe?

BIDEN: This is so...

TRUMP: Who's on your list?

CHRIS WALLACE: All right. Gentlemen - I think we've ended this...

BIDEN: This is so unpresidential.

TRUMP: He's going to pack the court...

DETROW: Tonight's debate should be different. To walk us through why and what to watch for, we are joined by NPR senior national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

DETROW: We have heard so much from voters who do not want to see this rematch between Trump and Biden, but it is here. The characters are the same. But what's different about this year in terms of their positions going into tonight?

LIASSON: Very, very different. Last time, Joe Biden had a small lead that started in about June, and he maintained it all the way till election day. Trump was the unpopular incumbent. He was the underdog back then. Now, the roles are reversed. Reelections are usually a referendum on the incumbent. The last one was. And so far, this one looks like it's been one, too.

Biden asked for this debate. This is the earliest debate ever in a presidential race. Of course, Trump had said many times he would debate Biden anywhere, anytime, anyplace. But Biden needed this debate to shake up the race. And even though he's spent a ton of money trying to remind voters what they didn't like about Trump, that hasn't worked. This is still a very tight race. Trump's approval ratings have gone up since he's been out of office. Now, that's very, very common with ex-presidents. We've just never had one run again in a rematch like this.

DETROW: Right.

LIASSON: So for this debate, Biden is hoping that Trump will perform in a way that reminds people of what they didn't like about him or that he can goad Trump into highlighting his flaws.

DETROW: So let's talk more about how the debate is different. You mentioned one big thing - that it's so early. Another difference is that there's not going to be an audience. What else?

LIASSON: Well, for one thing, in 2020, the rules were very, very different. For the first debate, as you just heard, Trump kept on talking and interrupting, and that was widely perceived as a problem for him because he came off as undisciplined and chaotic. Tonight, CNN has decided to put a mute button in place, so it'll cut down on the crosstalk. You won't hear people talking after their allotted time is up.

And those new debate rules could help Trump reign himself in. It could help him look less vengeful, less chaotic, less vindictive - if those are the lessons that he learned from that 2020 debate. And that's the big question. There are a lot of his allies in the Republican Party who have said they think that should be his goal for this debate - that he should be not so chaotic, not so aggressive - but we don't know if that's what he has in mind for himself tonight.

DETROW: Mara, I've had the pleasure of sitting next to you and watching several debates in the past. How do you watch a debate? What are you looking for?

LIASSON: Well, what I'm looking for is how this debate matches up to the expectations of this debate. Remember, expectations - or expectation-setting - is a big part of pre-debate politics. And this time, the Trump team, maybe inexplicably, has set the bar extremely low for Biden, claiming he's senile and incompetent. And with that low bar, Biden really only has to not look that bad tonight. He just has to look like he's vigorous and not an old geezer. We've seen him perform in high-stakes events before, like the State of the Union.

For Trump, his campaign has set the bar very, very high. They've talked about how great a debater he is. They expect him to be vigorous. They say he'll wipe the floor with Joe Biden. So the Trump team has set the bar low for their opponent and high for their candidate, which usually campaigns don't want to do.

DETROW: Right. That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you so much.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

DETROW: NPR's coverage of tonight's CNN presidential debate starts at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Tune in to your local member station. 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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Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.