Shrewd Trump vs. Studied Clinton in First Debate

Shrewd Trump vs. Studied Clinton in First Debate
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Hillary Clinton and her campaign team have pored over hours of video showing Donald Trump debating his GOP primary opponents, sparring with television moderators, and skewering “Crooked Hillary” from the stump.

“I think this will be a difficult, challenging debate,” Clinton told reporters a few weeks ago. “I take nothing for granted. … I’m doing my homework.”

Trump’s campaign advisers have similarly reviewed a collection of Clinton debate performances, but the Republican nominee has publicly played down any need to cram for Monday night’s high-stakes television drama at Hofstra University. 

“I believe you can prep too much for those things. It can be dangerous,” Trump said last month. “You can sound scripted or phony, like you’re trying to be someone you’re not.”

Clinton’s considerable debate strengths -- and her weaknesses -- have been on display since 2000, when she overcame criticism that she was a carpetbagger to win a New York Senate seat. The former first lady of Arkansas told New Yorkers in her contest against former Rep. Rick Lazio that where she sought to take the state was more important than where she came from. She triumphed in a Democratic state over what former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani dubbed the “ABC” electorate -- anybody but Clinton.

It’s a good bet that some of Clinton’s rhetoric Monday will be lifted from her debate preparation in 2000 and 2008, especially when she describes her biography and years of advocacy for the downtrodden. Clinton is likely, for example, to reprise her invitation to voters from eight years ago to envision the contenders juggling domestic and international crises as America’s next president. 

“Who is ready on day one to walk into that Oval Office, knowing the problems that are going to be there waiting for our next president?” she asked during a Democratic primary debate against Barack Obama and John Edwards in January 2008. That question -- who is steady, ready and experienced -- lies at the heart of Clinton’s challenge to Trump.

Clinton’s assets, including her articulate (if occasionally bloodless) presentations of policy arguments, are as foreseeable as her tics, such as her frosty defensiveness when her judgment comes under attack.

Trump, on the other hand, is relatively new to political debating and, by his own admission, an improvisational gut player who puts his faith in the art of his performance rather than the logic or workability of his ever-evolving proposals.

Trump rarely wilts under the weight of a fact-based challenge (his 30-second "birther" reversal last week was five years in the making). And he says his style is to punch back when criticized. The businessman’s concessions to error, exaggeration or misdeeds are hard to come by. Clinton is expected to assail her opponent for his alleged self-dealing using other people’s charitable gifts to the Trump Foundation, while Trump is guaranteed to accuse his opponent and Bill Clinton of devising pay-to-play arrangements between donors to the Clinton Foundation and the State Department.

With early voting around the corner and the election six weeks away, Trump’s never-give-an-inch approach during debates thrills his base of supporters, but it could alienate college-educated and female voters who say they don’t favor Clinton but say they view Trump as too undisciplined to be president.

“My temperament is very good, very calm,” he said during one raucous debate among primary rivals last year.

Trump possesses a boxer’s instinct for jabbing his opponents, and he knows when to land a wicked punch. He thinks on his feet, ignores the time rules and drags reluctant moderators into the discussions. He knows his opponents’ records in enough detail to lunge for his openings.

For example, the New York businessman, eager to dispatch Jeb Bush from the race last year, rebuked President George W. Bush for what he said were failures that paved the way for Barack Obama to win in 2008. Trump understood that nothing got a rise out of Bush quite like criticizing the Bush family. The former Florida governor leaped to defend the 43rd president, responding, “He kept us safe.”

Trump waited for Bush to finish and leaned over his microphone, signaling to the audience that he intended to get the final word in the joust. “I don’t know. You feel safe right now? I don’t feel so safe,” he said.

The GOP nominee values what the audience perceives more than the accuracy or technicalities involved in what he says during debates. His answers flit through multiple topics and veer off into acerbic thought bubbles. He by turns flatters moderators and skewers them, never happier than if he can make them squirm. Lamenting any kind of bias within the Fourth Estate is a topic that resonates in America’s living rooms and on social media. The king of Twitter understands there’s an important voter-to-voter and pundit-to-voter commentary that accompanies the debate seen on TV.

For all these reasons, the former secretary of state’s campaign communications adviser told reporters this week, “We are preparing for the different Trumps that might show up.”

“He may be aggressive or he may hang back,” Jennifer Palmieri said during an interview with a group of journalists, including a correspondent from NBC News. The network’s news anchor, Lester Holt, will be the moderator Monday for the 90-minute event. “That’s hard to game out,” she said.

Despite the breathless media hype about the first of three scheduled presidential debates (there also will be one vice presidential matchup), the potential impact on the election actually could be seismic. Consider, for example, the 19 percent of voters who say they are undecided or leaning toward a third party candidate. Trump and Clinton also are deeply distrusted and disliked by majorities of Americans, according to numerous polls.

If the candidates want to shore up or lock up advantages with the electorate, Monday night is a time to shine.

“One of the things you would hope that debates would do is increase the likelihood that people are casting a vote for their favored candidate, rather than against the other candidate,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and professor of communication. 

Jamieson, who will be examining whether the debates in fact persuade some voters to cast their ballots affirmatively, explained why it makes a difference.

“It’s healthier for governance to have votes be supporting someone and someone’s issue agenda, and endorsing someone’s capacity to lead, rather than trying to vote to keep someone else out of office,” she told RealClearPolitics.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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