“Eight years as vice president, three decades in the Senate, two debates as vice president and he just came through about a dozen debates in the Democratic primaries where he vanquished two dozen opponents — that’s the Joe Biden we’re expecting,” Murtaugh said.
It’s this type of expectation-setting that some of the president’s allies believe he and his campaign should have engaged in all along, an approach they’re now frustrated to see deployed so close to the Sept. 29 debate in Cleveland. The Trump campaign spent the bulk of this summer questioning whether “Sleepy Joe” is fit for office and accusing the Biden campaign of trying to circumvent the traditional debates to avoid a potentially embarrassing situation for their candidate.
“This idea of Biden not knowing how to debate is ridiculous. The more that expectations are lowered for him the worse,” said former White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
“A lot of folks are looking for a reason to declare him the victor and now they’ll be able to use Trump’s words as a way to justify their verdict that Biden won,” added Spicer, who believes Biden “will land a punch or two” against Trump but doubts either candidate’s performance will affect the race all that much.
Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP strategist who currently runs a pro-Trump super PAC, said the Trump campaign has “so diminished” Biden that he is virtually guaranteed to be perceived as the winner once he and Trump emerge from their first debate.
“Biden has clearly shown he can function, the bar is low and the expectations are so low, all he has to do is exceed those expectations,” Rollins said.
Several Trump allies pointed to Biden’s sharp debate earlier this year against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, his last remaining opponent in the Democratic primary and a skilled sparring partner, as the clearest indication that he is capable of going toe-to-toe against the president. Biden scored slightly higher than Sanders in a poll following their March debate, where the former vice president delivered a strong case against Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a practical rebuke of Sanders’ so-called political revolution.
“We have problems we have to solve now. What’s a revolution going to do? Disrupt everything in the meantime?” asked Biden in one memorable line.
Trump has been studying his opponent’s past debate performances and working with a small team of advisers for several weeks to prepare for the trio of fall debates.
The president’s advisers expect Biden will use the current political landscape — as voters face a battered economy, global pandemic, social upheaval and a Supreme Court battle that is likely to sow further division on Capitol Hill — to build a case during each of the debates that Trump has created problems he is incapable of solving.
While they don’t expect Biden, who is prone to verbal blunders and often stumbles over his words, to maintain a strong posture for the entire 90-minute televised debate, they acknowledge that it will take only a couple of stinging soundbites and memorable zingers to surpass the bar Trump has set for him.
“The danger with [Trump’s] sustained attack against Biden’s cognitive abilities is that he’s now created a situation for himself where he has no excuse to fall back on if Biden lands a few punches and he struggles to return blows,” said a Republican close to the Trump campaign.
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