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The Risks and Rewards of the Presidential Debate

One way to win, a million ways to lose.

On June 27, two presidents, one former, one current, will be stage-managed by CNN producers to create what the ailing news network hopes will be a spectacle to revive its flagging ratings. Donald Trump and Joe Biden will take part in a debate that involves no studio audience. Candidates’ microphones will be muted when it isn’t their “turn” to speak and the entire event will be completely controlled by a network that has been avowedly anti-Trump since November 2016. What could possibly go wrong?

The Debate Scorecard

For the president, all the planets have aligned. The network, the moderators – Jake Tapper and Dana Bash – and the format are all pro-Biden. Indeed, just last month, Bash described Trump’s campaign rhetoric as “antisemitic and incredibly dangerous” and claimed that it “was used in Nazi Germany.” Noting that moderators “will use all tools at their disposal to enforce timing and ensure a civilized discussion,” CNN will, at its discretion, turn off candidates’ microphones – thereby protecting Biden from Trump’s barbs. In fact, all the incumbent needs to do is spout well-rehearsed talking points to claim a victory.

Reuters reported that each campaign has specified the topics it favors. For Team Biden, those will be “abortion rights, the state of democracy and the economy.” For Trump, his outreach team apparently opted for “immigration, public safety and inflation as key issues ahead of the debate.” Abortion has proven to be a winning topic for Democrats, and despite Trump’s insistence that it should be up to the individual states to determine, it is likely that this round will go to Biden. But how effectively will Biden communicate his stance on the other issues?

After dismantling many of Trump’s immigration initiatives within his first week in office, Biden’s attempt to stem the flow of humanity right before the election is a weak spot for him. The record numbers speak for themselves. Likewise, inflation. Although the monthly figure is dropping, the cost of living crisis has seen wealth for middle- and low-income families crater. The chances of Biden winning the economy round are slim.

When it comes to issues of “democracy,” this will be a battle of rhetoric. Biden will try to paint Trump as the greatest threat the nation has known, no doubt referencing Jan. 6 and Trump’s comedic aside about being a “dictator” for “one day.”

Yet the debate may not be measured in balls and strikes but rather in tone and temperament.

A Knockout Blow?

Trump is well-known for his flippant mockery and on-the-spot quips. If he can strategically push his opponent — whether by referencing Biden’s false statements about Hunter Biden’s laptop when they debated in 2020, or, well, any number of questionable comments – the famously thin-skinned Biden may take the bait.

With the odds stacked against Trump in the Fourth Estate in general – and a decidedly anti-Trump bent, specifically in the stables of CNN – the 45th president has to tip the scales in his direction. But he really needs only one sharp attack to penetrate the Biden defense. If he can deliver that, Trump might walk away victorious.

Read More From Mark Angelides

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