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President Biden and former President Trump face off in CNN debate next week

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

A week from Thursday, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will meet face-to-face in a presidential debate. There is a lot here that's going to be different, starting with the fact that this is happening in June, months before the election and months ahead of when presidential candidates normally meet for debates. The debate is also being put on by CNN, not the Commission on Presidential Debates that has stuck to down-the-middle traditional formats for decades. CNN announced its format and its rules this weekend, and NPR's Stephen Fowler joins us now from Atlanta to talk about how these will affect the June 27 showdown. Hey, Stephen.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So let's zoom out, big picture. Again, presidential debates have been happening for a long time, but this is being put on by CNN, and it really upends that tradition in a number of ways. Just how much is going to be different here?

FOWLER: So there's not going to be any opening statements. There's no studio audience to cheer or jeer. And the network says that candidate microphones will be cut off and muted when they're not answering questions or given rebuttal time. Speaking of time, it's a 90-minute debate with two commercial breaks thrown in - also a first - and the candidates will be given two minutes to respond, a minute for a rebuttal, another minute to rebut the rebuttal and another minute at the moderator's discretion. In some ways, that's a lot of time to hear from the two candidates but also not. I mean, that's basically five minutes on weighty issues like immigration, Trump's felonies and other topics about America's future. I mean, you and I are going to spend almost that long here packing a ton of information about the debate, but we're also not long-winded politicians.

DETROW: And I'm also not yelling over you and interrupting you and attacking you as you talk, which is relevant because I was in the room for that 2020 first debate between Trump and Biden, which was really defined by Trump's constant attacks and interruptions, which makes me think this rule about the muting of the microphones will be pretty important.

FOWLER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, case in point, Joe Biden was asked about expanding the Supreme Court. Trump didn't like how Biden dodged the question, and we ultimately don't remember his answer because we had this exchange in the 2020 debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: I'm not going to answer the question because...

DONALD TRUMP: Why wouldn't you answer that question?

BIDEN: Because the question is...

TRUMP: You want to put a lot of new Supreme Court justices...

BIDEN: The question is...

TRUMP: ...Radical left.

BIDEN: Will you shut up, man?

TRUMP: Listen, who is on your list, Joe? Who is on your list?

BIDEN: This is so...

CHRIS WALLACE: Gentlemen, I think we've ended this...

BIDEN: This is so unpresidential.

TRUMP: He's going to pack the court. He is not going to give a list.

WALLACE: We have ended the segment. We're going to move on to the second segment.

BIDEN: That was really a productive segment, wasn't it?

DETROW: That's bringing back a lot of memories. Biden and Trump, of course, as you've reported so much on, are not the only candidates in this race. There is so much third-party interest this year, but they are going to be the only two almost certainly on the stage in this debate. Why is that?

FOWLER: So CNN has criteria. You have to be constitutionally eligible to be president, meet the polling threshold of 15% across four different high-quality polls and actually be on enough ballots to mathematically have a chance to be president. Independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. might hit that polling mark, but he can't hit the ballot access threshold. He's only officially on the ballot in a handful of states, and while the campaign has submitted petitions for many others, they haven't been verified yet. So by this debate, he will not meet that threshold. And there's other candidates and campaigns, the Libertarian Party, the Green Party and so on, but those will be more about deciding which of the two don't win the election. So in many ways, the debate could help that choice, too.

DETROW: Right. And doing this early, before Kennedy could qualify for enough states to get to 270, was certainly part of the motivation of the campaigns wanting to do this earlier. What are some of the other reasons that both Trump and Biden's camps pushed to do this so early?

FOWLER: Right. So debates are usually about grabbing soundbites to tout yourself or to attack your opponent. So Trump and Biden are both these known entities. There's not going to be anything new there, so they want to use that viral soundbite clip to hammer home the stakes of the election and to hammer home their vision for what America would be like if they win or if their opponent wins. I mean, we've done reporting and conversations with people who still haven't grappled with the fact that it's a Trump-Biden rematch. So by getting the ball rolling with the debates in June, both the Trump and Biden campaigns hope that that's enough to get people to really start thinking that, yeah, this is happening.

DETROW: That's NPR's Stephen Fowler, who covers the campaign for us, also the dad of a toddler. So happy Father's Day, and thanks for joining us, Stephen.

FOWLER: Happy Father's Day to you, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.
Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is the weekend host of All Things Considered, and a co-host of the Consider This podcast. In this role Detrow contributes to the weekday All Things Considered broadcasts, and regularly hosts NPR's live special coverage of major news stories.