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What to expect from the first US presidential debate

The grudge match to end all grudge matches: Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump. Who will come out on top?
By Justin Webb

Ronald Reagan was behind in the polls before the televised debates of the 1980 presidential election. People thought he was an extremist. That he might start the third world war. That he was nothing but a two-bit actor, an unserious man.

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Remind you of anyone? 
Make no mistake: the TV debates of the 2016 election are Donald Trump’s last remaining opportunity to put his madcap campaign on the road to victory. He must convince Americans that he has what it takes to be president. He must charm and persuade.

Or blow up. Hit out. Amaze and horrify a nation already reeling from a presidential campaign like none in recent times. He could do that too – he could effectively end the thing weeks before the poll.

There is talk of him being more interested in starting a TV network than solving the Syrian civil war. If so, this could be where he goes for that option: all guns blazing. Or does he see a real chance of being president now, courtesy of Clinton’s pneumonia? What effect will her health have on his behaviour?

Let us be clear: of all the live TV debates in US election history this is the one to watch. Indeed, in all the live TV events in the history of mankind, you could argue that none has been bigger than this. “Box Office” doesn’t begin to describe it: 26 September 2016 will go down in broadcasting history.

It’s worth noting that the importance of the three presidential debates this year is itself unusual; yet another manifestation of the weirdness of 2016.

That Reagan election aside, the televised debates are not the deciders in American presidential battles. Mitt Romney wiped the floor with Barack Obama in their first encounter in 2012 but – as predicted – was swept aside in the election.

John Kerry damaged George W Bush in 2004 (Bush looked so wooden in the debate I attended at Miami that people wondered if
 he was wearing an earpiece and having the answers fed into it) but again the loser of the debate won the election.

But, hey, that was in the far off days when American politics was restrained. Dignified even. What Trump showed during the 11 debates he held with his fellow Republicans that eventually helped win him the nomination is that no hold is barred to this man.

This is the guy who used a debate to assure the nation that it need not worry about the size of his penis – “I guarantee there’s no problem. I guarantee!”

And when it came to the attributes – mental and physical – of his opponents, Hillary Clinton has told US television, “I’ll have to be prepared for whacky stuff that comes at you.”

But whacky hardly captures it. One of Trump’s former opponents in the Republican debates, Newt Gingrich, put it like this: “You need to understand that Trump is the grizzly bear in The Revenant. When you hit him, he devours you. He can’t help himself. And so he creates an environment unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

Unlike anything he’s ever seen. Yep. That’s what you will get if you
 stay up late on 26
 September, 9 October, and 19 October.

They say Hillary Clinton has had difficulty finding anyone to play the part of Trump in her preparations for the debates because nobody was willing to say “those things” to her face. Hardened political operatives blanched and refused. Even in the cause of victory. They would have had to leave the country afterwards.

They could never have looked the Clintons in the face again. Remember, Bill Clinton is accused by some on the American right of being not just a philanderer, but a rapist. How nasty could Trump get? Do we need to ask?

Or perhaps the Hillary plan will get him to be as nasty as possible and just hope the unpleasantness will ease her into the White House. She is said to have a team of researchers looking into ways of “flustering” her opponent. She needs a team to do that? For a start: why not try the penis size thing. (Spoiler alert: this is unlikely)

However, for all the drama of these debates the big moments of yesteryear were pretty tame in reality. The biggest putdown was probably by the vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen when he ran against Dan Quayle in 1988.

Quayle compared himself to former President Kennedy and Bentsen replied imperiously, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine.

Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Gosh. I have a feeling the put-downs this week will be a tad rougher round the edges, even if they make many Americans hanker after the courtly days of Bentsen and Quayle.

As one of Trump’s advisers Sam Nunberg puts it, “Not only does Trump want 100 million viewers, he wants to be a showstopper at the Roman Colosseum, the main event at WrestleMania. He’s going to love this, 
eat it up and take her on.”

Which would be great TV, but potentially catastrophic politics according to Republicans of a milder disposition. “He thinks he won all the primary debates,” says Brett O’Donnell, a debate coach who works full time for the Republican party but not for Trump, “But he picked his spots, beat up on a candidate and then evaporated for a while and stayed out of the substance.”

O’Donnell told the Washington Post, “he’s not going to be able to hide like that with just the two of them on stage... He can’t just name-call her and have a wrestling match for 90 minutes.”


It’s worth adding that the debates are about more than Trump and his psychological fitness for office. Clinton, too, has questions to answer. She is wildly unpopular; she is accused of being a liar and a fraud. In a recent poll Americans were asked to rate Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The best rating – the most popular – was Putin. That is not normal.

The debates give each candidate the opportunity to become more normal, or at least to make a stab at it. And that is as important for Clinton as it is for Trump.

The former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, one
 of Clinton’s closest advisers says, “People think that they have to land zingers and pivot and attack – and that’s true, but ultimately, you want your viewers to come away with a gut feeling that I like this person.”

For Mrs Clinton that seems to be quite a tall order. To be fair she has been popular in the past – she was a popular Secretary of State – but the more effort she throws into campaigning the less people seem to like her.

Might the TV debates help her reverse that? Fire up the microwave. Buy in the popcorn. And if you live near a churchyard, that sound outside is Lincoln, turning in his grave. 

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The First Presidential Debate is on 2am Tuesday morning on Channel 4

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