WASHINGTON — Donald Trump needs to win next month’s debate to get ahead of Hillary Clinton in the polls — and he’s going to have to look presidential while still landing punches on soft spots such as her scandals while throwing her off balance with personal attacks.
Both the Republican and the Democrat are now prepping for what could be the hardest fought, most acrimonious presidential debates in living memory — promising to be a series of unpredictable prime-time slugfests between two tough candidates.
“Trump’s goal will be to put points on the board, and so he will be swinging for the fences,” said GOP strategist Ryan Williams, who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign team. “Clinton’s strategy during the debate will be to run the clock out and to do no harm.”
“She’ll punch on policy. He’ll punch on the personal stuff,” predicted Democratic strategist Steve McMahon, who worked on the presidential campaigns of Edward M. Kennedy, Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean.
But Trump’s strongest moments have come when he showed some discipline and stayed on script — such as the GOP convention and other recent speeches, before returning to wild gibes that have cost him. But to win, he still needs to attack — but without crossing any lines. And he needs to show substance and a command of detail on policy.
Clinton leads Trump in most polls, but that can be a disadvantage going into the first debate, scheduled for Sept. 26 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. — the state both candidates call home. Clinton, with much more to lose, will have to have both a strong offense and defense to survive. She must draw on her deep experience as a former U.S. senator and secretary of state. But while known to be a policy wonk, she must also anticipate the unexpected from a self-proclaimed showman.
“He’ll entertain and he’ll say outrageous things,” McMahon said. “She’ll be presidential and statesmanlike. He will behave like a carnival-barking clown. She has to be prepared for that.”
Yesterday Trump met with members of his debate preparation team, including conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes.
While Ailes stepped down from the cable network in a scandal amid claims of sexual harassment, he is no stranger to presidential debate preparations. Ailes armed Ronald Reagan with the memorable line used against Democratic opponent Walter Mondale in a 1984 debate when the issue of Reagan’s age came up: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Ingraham may play the role of Clinton in Trump’s mock debates, but for now Trump is eschewing formal practice in favor of more casual gatherings with his team, like yesterday’s confab at his New Jersey golf course, according to a Washington Post report.
In contrast, Clinton is poring over policy materials, practicing debate timing and engaging in a much more traditional approach to the televised contests, the report said. Still, her campaign has not disclosed whether it has secured anyone to serve as Trump in mock debates — though former Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz has volunteered.
Last week on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Clinton signaled that she is also prepping for the curveballs, punches and elbows that Trump may throw.
“You’ve got to be prepared for, like, wacky stuff that comes at you,” Clinton said. “And I am drawing on my experience in elementary school. You know, the guy who pulled your ponytail.”
But while Clinton’s experience in the U.S. Senate and as secretary of state, as well as her penchant for being a policy wonk, could serve as an asset in preparing for talking policy, it also makes her as easy to peg by the Trump team as if she were an incumbent, Williams said.
He used the example of the first debate between Romney and President Obama in 2012, when Obama seemed rusty.
“Romney cleaned Obama’s clock in that debate,” Williams said. “Obama simply wasn’t ready.”
There is one key difference this year: While Obama faced no primary challenge, Clinton did face a tough challenge by Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, which kept her on her toes, and on the debate stage.
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