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Biden, Trump square off in 90-minute presidential debate


FILE - This combination of photos show President Donald Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Sept. 29, 2020.
FILE - This combination of photos show President Donald Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Sept. 29, 2020.

To many Americans, it might seem like a summertime TV rerun, but President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump debated Thursday night in a seminal moment for their campaigns leading up to the November 5 election.

It was the earliest debate ever in the quadrennial cycle of U.S. presidential elections, but a replay of their two 2020 debates, which occurred in the two months just ahead of Biden defeating Trump’s reelection bid for a new term in the White House.

Thursday’s face-off was the first time two U.S. presidents have debated each other and it was the first time Biden and Trump were in the same room since they last debated in October 2020.

Trump skipped Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, and they have been sniping at each other ever since.

In recent days, Trump has mocked Biden’s debate preparation and suggested he would need a medical boost to get through the face-to-face encounter. Trump told a Philadelphia rally, “Right now, crooked Joe has gone to a log cabin to ‘study,’” as he pantomimed quotation marks with his hands. “He’s sleeping now, because they want to get him good and strong.”

Trump has long contended that Biden cannot put “two sentences together.” More recently, however, Trump has been priming his supporters for the possibility that Biden might be something more formidable than the doddering old man that Trump has portrayed him as.

“I assume he’s going to be somebody that will be a worthy debater,” Trump told one interviewer. “I don’t want to underestimate him.”

For his part, in mid-May, just before the Thursday debate was agreed to, Biden said, “Donald Trump lost two debates to me in 2020. Since then, he hasn’t shown up for a debate.” Trump skipped several such encounters against Republican opponents in the party’s presidential nominating process earlier this year.

“Now he’s acting like he wants to debate me again,” Biden said. “Well, make my day, pal.”

WATCH: Ahead of Thursday's presidential debate, a look back at 2020

Ahead of Thursday presidential debate, a look back to 2020
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Trump was likely to accuse Biden of mishandling the U.S. economy and lax control of the southwestern U.S. border with Mexico, allowing thousands of migrants to stream into the United States before Biden recently tightened entry restrictions.

Trump has claimed that excessive government spending early in Biden’s presidency boosted consumer prices at an annualized rate of more than 9%, sharply pinching family budgets for food, gasoline and other necessities, although the rate has since dropped substantially, to 3.3% in May.

For his part, Biden was likely to point out that Trump is now a convicted felon, found guilty of 34 charges last month linked to an attempt to influence the outcome of his successful 2016 presidential campaign by falsifying records of a hush money payment to a porn star. In addition, Biden assuredly was set to remind voters that Trump faces three other indictments, including two alleging the former president illegally tried to upend his 2020 election loss.

Biden was likely to blame Trump’s appointment of three conservatives to the U.S. Supreme Court for its 2022 decision to overturn the nearly five-decade-old constitutional right to abortion in the U.S. Biden has contended that Trump, if he gets the chance during a second term to carry out his plans for “retribution” against his political foes, is a threat to American democracy.

Famous US presidential debate moments
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National polls show Biden and Trump in a virtual dead heat.

Numerous U.S. political analysts say that millions of Americans have already locked in their choice in the contest between the two oldest candidates ever, the Democrat Biden at 81 and the Republican Trump at 78. Many voters dislike them both, “double haters,” in the current U.S. political parlance, and may only reluctantly choose one of the two, vote for a third party or independent candidate, or not vote at all.

For political independents who have yet to decide, or maybe for those who have not closely followed the contest, the debate could be determinative or at least point them in the direction of one or the other. A second debate is set for September 10.

More than 73 million people tuned in to the first Biden-Trump debate in 2020, which turned into a shout-fest that was roundly criticized by analysts as possibly the worst presidential debate ever because both candidates frequently interrupted and talked over each other. Their second encounter was more civil.

Debate rules

New rules were in place for Thursday’s encounter that could curb the debate theatrics. It was being held in a television studio at CNN’s headquarters in the southern city of Atlanta, moderated by two of the news network’s veteran anchors, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. There was no live audience, eliminating the prospect of cheering, booing and applause from Biden's and Trump’s staunchest adherents.

Under debate terms agreed to by both campaigns, each was to have two minutes to answer questions posed directly to them, with each then having a minute for rebuttals and responses to the rebuttals.

Perhaps most importantly, microphones were only live for the candidate being asked a question, although it was unclear whether that mic might pick up any concurrent rejoinder from the other candidate. Flashing red lights were set to warn them when they had five seconds left to finish an answer, and then turn solid red when their time had expired, and their microphone had been turned off.

The debate was scheduled to last 90 minutes, with two 3½-minute advertising breaks, but campaign aides were not be allowed to talk to their candidates during the intermissions. The candidates also weren't allowed to use any props or prewritten notes, and were given only a pen, paper and water.

There were no opening statements planned and the campaigns had a coin toss to decide which lectern to stand behind or the order in which they would make a closing statement. Biden won the coin flip and chose the right-hand lectern on the stage, giving Trump the last statement of the night.

Aaron Kall, the debate coach at the University of Michigan, told VOA, “The lack of an in-person audience decreases the incentive to be maximally aggressive while deploying a constant barrage of zingers. They will land without fanfare and the candidates will be in the dark about how the viewing audience is reacting in real time.”

“President Biden must above all else do no harm and make a disqualifying gaffe that will create a negative media cycle regarding his advanced age and stamina to serve a second term in office,” Kall said. “He should remind the audience about the worst and most chaotic parts of the Trump presidency and must exhibit the proper stamina needed to move the country forward during the next four years.”

The debate coach added, “Trump must avoid the constant interruptions of President Biden and the moderators that negatively impacted his performance” in the first debate in Cleveland four years ago.

Kall said Trump “should try to act presidential and rise above the fray during any contentious exchanges. We’ve witnessed this version of Trump during some formal addresses to joint sessions of Congress, but it’s unclear if he can remain disciplined for 90 minutes in a debate against President Biden given the history and personal animus between the two.”

He concluded, “Both candidates have an incentive to be civil, but all bets could be off once the event is under way. The novel debate rules from CNN are designed to produce a more civil and substance-filled product in Atlanta, but tens of millions of Americans will be watching to see if that actually comes to fruition.”