With signs of an ever-tightening presidential contest, the political world was abuzz with speculation and advice for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump Sunday on the eve of their crucial first nationally televised debate.
Clinton, the former secretary of state and New York senator, must display her prowess as a national leader and policy maven while somehow allowing her warmth to show through, some are arguing. She will have to needle the unpredictable Trump to try to provoke him to make another outrageous comment or display his ignorance, but without coming across as a shrew.
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Meanwhile, Trump, who has made it this far on the strength of vicious personal attacks on his opponents, harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and scary, dystopian portrayals of the U.S. in sharp decline, must somehow show he has the vision and temperament to lead the country.
While Trump must continue to make the case that Clinton’s e-mail scandal and questionable judgment on Iraq, Libya and other foreign policy issues effectively disqualify her from serving as the next president, he must avoid making a major gaffe or glaring factual error that would reinforce Clinton’s assertion that he is woefully unfit to become commander in chief.
Just 24 hours before Clinton and Trump face off on the campus of Hofstra University on Long Island in the first of three scheduled debates, the Sunday talk shows were dominated by tons of free strategic advice from political pols along those lines.
Mark McKinnon, a former political adviser to Republican president George W. Bush, noted on CNN’s State of the Union that “body language is really important,” especially with a split screen during the debates. Former Democratic Vice President Al Gore was seriously hurt during his October 2000 debate with Bush by his deep sighing and pained expressions while Bush was speaking.
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“People are going to be watching temperament and body language as much as they do the actual language itself,” McKinnon told host Jake Tapper.
David Axelrod, the former senior political adviser to President Obama who helped Obama defeat Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries, cautioned that while both sides no doubt are preparing sharp zingers and retorts for the debate, they would be better off finding ways for their candidate to make lasting, positive impressions on the TV audience.
“These debates, Jake, come down to moments,” Axelrod explained. “You don’t get graded for 90 minutes, it comes down to revealing moments. And, yes, both camps are probably planning these exchanges and hoping to land lines that accentuate their message.”
In a fit of hyperbole, George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC’s This Week, said the upcoming debate “has been compared to the Super Bowl, the first Ali-Frazier fight, even man’s landing on the moon.”
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With a newly released Washington Post-ABC New poll showing Clinton’s post-conventions advantage virtually erased, the candidates’ top campaign aides sought to manage expectations heading into Monday night’s debate.
While acknowledging that Clinton is the far more experienced debater and should do well against Trump, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook fretted that the New York real estate mogul will be held to a lower standard – and be allowed to get away with lying about his own and Clinton’s record. Media fact checkers have consistently rated Trump much higher than Clinton for misstating the truth.
“What needs to happen at this debate is the candidates need to present their capacity to serve as president and commander-in-chief, and we think Hillary Clinton is going to do that,” Mook told Stephanopoulos. “What we’re concerned about is that there might be some sort of double standard here. You know, Donald Trump can’t lie on that debate stage and win, or even get a passing grade. Donald Trump cannot demonstrate that he doesn’t have command of the issues and get a passing grade.”
Clinton’s camp is urging the debate moderator, NBC’s Lester Holt, to call out Trump if he lies about Clinton or the issues, although there is a festering controversy within the media and among members of the national debate commission over whether the moderator should be the arbiter of truth or simply the referee in the debate.
“All that we’re asking is that if Donald Trump lies, that it is pointed out,” Mook said. “It is unfair to ask for Hillary both to play traffic cop with Trump -- make sure that his lies are corrected – and also to present her vision for what she wants to do for the American people.”
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Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, fired back on the same show that it was Clinton who was having more trouble telling the truth, in light of the scandal over her mishandling of highly sensitive emails and government documents when she was secretary of state.
“A victory for Donald Trump tomorrow night is answering the questions and showing America he’s ready to be president and commander-in-chief on day one,” she said.
As for Mook’s concern about Clinton being subjected to a double standard, Conway replied that “I think they’re really afraid that Hillary Clinton is not a very good candidate, and that a majority of Americans don’t much like her . . . and don’t trust her.”
“So [Clinton’s camp] are worried about many things,” she added. “Hillary Clinton should be in a much better position. She’s not known for her abundance of self-awareness, for being nimble or resilient. They never saw Barack Obama coming in 2008. They never took Bernie Sanders seriously earlier this year, and he won 22 states and millions of voters. And they certainly never anticipated the Trump comeback that we’ve seen over the last few months.”
The new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that among likely voters, Clinton barely leads Trump, 46 percent to 44 percent, with Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson at 5 percent and Green Party nominee Jill Stein at 1 percent. Clinton’s much diminished lead since the Republican and Democratic national convention in late July falls within the survey’s 4.5 percent margin of error.
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The 90-minute faceoff Monday night will draw one of the largest debate audiences in history, with upward of 100 million people watching it. Eight in 10 voters say they intend to watch the debate, according to the new poll. Some 44 percent of voters say they expect Clinton, with her decades of political experience, to win the debate, while 34 percent believe that Trump, a political outsider and novice, will prevail over Clinton.
Both candidates continue to suffer from high negatives and distrust, with only a third of voters viewing Clinton or Trump in a favorable light, according to the poll.
On the issues, voters trust Trump slightly more than Clinton in dealing with the economy and terrorism – the top two major concerns -- while they trust Clinton more on immigration issues, health care, looking out for the middle class and responding to an international crisis.
On that last point, voters say they trust Clinton more than Trump to effectively respond to an international crisis 54 percent to 33 percent.
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Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Clinton’s vice presidential running mate, predicted during an appearance on the CBS Face the Nation that the race would remain close through election day Nov. 8.
“I encouraged Hillary to run for president in April of 2014,” he said. “And I told her, ‘Don’t believe any poll. You’re the underdog trying to do something that’s never been done. You’re the underdog until they call you the winner.’ So I think this thing’s going to be close right up to the end.”