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First presidential debate will be important but little help for predictions

In five weeks, one of the presidential campaigns will be proved wrong.

That’s because strategists for both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump think the forthcoming televised debates will benefit their candidate.

Biden’s camp believes the June 27 and Sept. 10 confrontations will remind uncertain voters that the 2024 election really is a rerun of their 2020 clash and will show Trump again as the unstable chaos creator of his first term.

Trump’s camp believes the debates will reveal a Biden far past his prime and justify the former president’s characterization of him as “the WORST debater I have ever faced — he can't put two sentences together!”

Biden’s camp believes it trapped the former president into accepting debates under terms he won’t like, especially the absence of an audience for the former reality television star to play to and mute buttons to keep the candidates from interrupting one another, a favored Trump tactic.

The Trump camp believes the former president’s incessant recent debate challenges forced Biden into accepting not just one but two debates when he would just as soon have avoided them altogether.

But beyond the bluster and the claims, there were always going to be presidential debates. There have been at least two in every election since 1976, when challenger Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Ford ended a 16-year hiatus in an election so close both believed they’d benefit.

Sound familiar?

Recent polling shows Biden has all but erased Trump’s initial small national lead but still faces a challenge in securing enough of the battleground states to gain the required 270 electoral votes.

Meanwhile, the results of recent presidential primaries, in which Biden and Trump ran essentially unopposed for the nominations they had already clinched, showed neither has solidified his base to the extent needed to win.

Trump’s strongest GOP opponent, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, continues to poll up to one in five Republican votes and has not yet endorsed the putative party nominee.

Biden continues to lose a somewhat smaller proportion of younger and more progressive Democrats casting undecided ballots to show opposition to his Middle East policies.

As a result, after spending tens of millions on ads aimed at specific parts of his successful 2020 coalition, he is still running below his campaign’s goals in groups from whom he needs large majorities — minorities and younger voters. In fact, some polls show Trump leading Biden among voters under 30.

The president’s strategists say their polling shows that, even after Trump captured the GOP nomination in March, many voters didn’t believe that the president would again be facing the rival he narrowly vanquished four years ago.

In that circumstance, they felt a debate between the two would be helpful in overcoming those doubts and, as such, a necessary gamble for a White House that has sought to protect Biden from unscripted occasions as much as possible.

But they also feel that, as in 2020, Trump is underestimating Biden’s experience in handling such encounters and will lower expectations for the president by repeatedly labeling him as an inept debater and weak leader.

In fact, at key moments over the past four years, Biden has tended to rise to the occasion and exceed expectations. They include his 2020 convention acceptance speech, the 2020 general election debate performances, and his past two State of the Union addresses.

Both candidates may be rusty; neither has participated in a debate since their two 2020 encounters because both avoided their primary foes. Trump prefers rallies where he can rail unchallenged against his favorite targets to the guaranteed acclamation of his fans. Biden prefers set piece speeches in which he can define the terms of the debate.

But both are pleased with the likely exclusion of wild card candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., currently polling about 10% nationally. He probably won’t meet the debate sponsors’ requirements for polling numbers and state ballot qualifications but may ultimately be a factor in determining if Biden or Trump wins the most closely contested states.

Without Kennedy, the debate may mirror the binary choice between stability and chaos that is the essence of this election.

It’s important to remember that initial post-debate signs of success, like instant polls, are questionable indicators of who’ll win the election. John F. Kennedy’s strong showing in the initial 1960 debate fueled his narrow victory, but, since then, candidate gaffes have often had a greater impact.

In 1976, Ford’s inexplicable statement that Communist-controlled Poland was free clearly contributed to his defeat. So did Democrat Mike Dukakis’ weak 1988 answer to a question about the death penalty, the moment during a 1992 town hall debate when former President George Bush was shown looking at his watch, and former Vice President Al Gore’s exaggerated reactions in his first 2000 encounter with George W. Bush.

On the other hand, former President Ronald Reagan recovered in a second 1984 debate from a meandering first debate closing that raised questions about his age, and former President Barack Obama rebounded from a weak debate 2012 performance that reflected his overconfidence.

The moments that dominate the post-debate debate will influence the next days and weeks. But there will still be four months until the election, including the two conventions and at least one more debate.

So, what happens June 27 may be the beginning of the end — but not the end.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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