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Biden and Trump are about to debate one another for the first time in 4 years

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We begin with an overriding story in the United States this week. The major party presidential nominees hold a debate on Thursday evening - the earliest such event in history. Surveys suggest widespread interest in this event, during a campaign that many people have recoiled from up to now. So how's it all going to work, and what, if anything, can we learn? We've invited in a couple of political pros. Mary Kate Cary wrote speeches for President George H.W. Bush, and is now at the University of Virginia. Welcome to the program.

MARY KATE CARY: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: She's here in Studio 31, as is Paul Orzulak. Did I say it correctly, Paul?

PAUL ORZULAK: You did.

INSKEEP: All right. Paul Orzulak, a speechwriter in the Clinton administration and co-founder of West Wing Writers here in Washington, D.C. - no relation to the television program.

ORZULAK: No relation to the television program (laughter).

INSKEEP: OK. So two candidates are going to stand side by side, and I guess the other thing that makes it unusual is that each campaign has said the other guy is mentally unfit for the job. So what's the potential for the moment of seeing them together? Mary Kate?

CARY: Well, there's many things different about this debate than previous ones. First of all, and biggest - I think Paul would agree - no audience. There will be two commercial breaks. We haven't seen that before. They're not allowed to talk to their staff during the commercial breaks, and the microphones will be muted when the other person is speaking, and I think that's going to be a big contrast to the last time these two had a first debate, in 2020.

INSKEEP: They had that first debate, when Trump continually talked over.

CARY: Correct.

ORZULAK: Yeah.

INSKEEP: But I'm a little hung up on the mechanics of this, though, because they're in the same room. I mean, if somebody decides to keep talking, you're going to hear them in the other person's microphone. It could still be a mess, right?

ORZULAK: I would imagine he wouldn't play by the rules if he feels so moved in the moment, as he often does in these debates.

INSKEEP: And when you say he, of course, we're talking about Donald Trump.

ORZULAK: Donald Trump.

INSKEEP: So let's think this through in terms of the substance. Maybe in 90 minutes, we'll get to some substance as well as some shouting. Mary Kate, who are some of the groups of voters that Trump needs to reach at this moment, when the race is effectively tied?

CARY: Well, the most fascinating polling I've seen in the last week or two is Washington Post is focusing on these people they're calling the deciders, and those are the people in six or seven key states, 18 to 25 years old, may or may not vote in the first place and are uncommitted to either candidate, and yet that crowd is very focused on issues, which I would hope a lot of people are. And in terms of things like the economy, threats to democracy, crime, Biden is at a deficit to Trump, so the more Trump can stay on the issues, the more of that crowd he's going to win over.

INSKEEP: I want to underline something you just said - threats to democracy, Biden is at a deficit to Trump...

CARY: Correct.

INSKEEP: ...With this group of 18- to 25-year-olds.

CARY: Correct, 38-to-29 deficit.

INSKEEP: OK.

CARY: It's the only one that's not double digits. Everything else is double digits. Isn't that amazing?

ORZULAK: It's amazing.

INSKEEP: It is amazing. And the fact, Paul, that it's 18- to 25-year-olds makes me think of something else I've been hearing about recently. The Biden campaign wants to emphasize how dangerous Donald Trump is, how chaotic and how terrible the first term was - his previous term was. People who are 18-25 may not have very much memory of that time.

ORZULAK: They don't. They have memory of January 6 - and I'm sure we'll hear a lot about that - and the storming of the Capitol, but what's interesting is that Donald Trump hasn't actually been pressed on any of his second-term ideas, that there's sort of a Trump amnesia from the first term. But right now, nobody knows what he's talking about for the second term, and there's a feeling that a lot of the things he's saying is a lot more extreme than the last time, so this will be the first time journalists are in a room with him where he has to explain what he wants to do on democracy and why he talked about sort of - he wants to be a dictator on day one, and talking about, like, using the Department of Justice to go after his political enemies. There are things that are just out there that nobody has really pressed him on that I think young voters will pay attention to, especially climate change.

INSKEEP: Trump did make a statement. His supporters have litigated this a little bit, but he said he wouldn't be a dictator except on day one, and he's got a couple of things he wants to do. Nobody gets to be a dictator in the United States, incidentally. I'll just mention that. But Biden also is in a situation where, against a candidate he considers to be utterly unfit, he's effectively tied. Who are some voters that he needs to reach?

ORZULAK: Well, there are Democrats, first of all - to reassure Democrats that he's going to be strong and able in the next four years - Democrats that have strayed from him. There are a lot of young suburban women who are with the president on abortion. That appeals to them, but they're also affected by the high cost of inflation. They need to hear from him on what he's going to do to continue to bring the economy back, which he's done a really good job on. But if you have another four years, how is it going to be different on the kitchen-table issues that most people are really focused on in this election?

INSKEEP: Mary Kate, I'd be shocked if President Biden does not bring up abortion. Today's the anniversary of the Dobbs decision...

CARY: Correct.

INSKEEP: ...The Supreme Court ruling. I was just looking at the television here. Vice President Harris was on MSNBC talking about abortion rights in this country. What do you make of the way that former President Trump has handled this issue, sometimes claiming credit for the Dobbs decision, sometimes saying he doesn't want to go as far as others in his party?

CARY: I think he's handling it pretty well because I think the answer that most people agree with is it needs to go back to the states. If you look at the RealClearPolitics averages, he is ahead of Biden on abortion, and a lot of these issues play into what he needs to say Thursday night. The one thing on all of these issues that both of these guys, I think, are going to have a hard time with - the only thing that's allowed at the podium is a piece of paper, a pen and a bottle of water. They cannot come in with their usual binders with policy briefs. And I was thinking about this coming in, Paul - that Paul and I - you know, we're speechwriters. We like teleprompters.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

ORZULAK: (Laughter).

CARY: We like binders with scripts. We like live audiences.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

ORZULAK: Yeah.

CARY: Like, how is this going to work?

ORZULAK: Yeah, and different for each of them, because Donald Trump feeds off a crowd - not so much for the energy, but it gives him a barometer for how far he can go and how he's doing in the moment. Without a live studio audience, that's not going to be there. But with 90 seconds to fill on each answer, that's a long time for President Biden at 9:30 at night...

CARY: Yeah.

ORZULAK: ...As well as, you know, Donald Trump at 9:30 at night.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note President Biden sometimes feeds off a crowd. The State of the Union addresses - they've made much of them.

ORZULAK: Yeah. Red Bull Joe is going to make an appearance...

CARY: (Laughter).

ORZULAK: ...Again, I think, on Thursday night.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Red Bull Joe. How do the moderators fit into something like this, and how can you be prepared for an unexpected question?

CARY: That is the debate prep whole thing that's going on. Biden's hunkered down at Camp David. I think he's doing exactly that with his team. President - former President Trump is not saying he's doing debate prep. He says he's doing his homework, but he won't use the word debate prep.

ORZULAK: He's doing debate prep.

CARY: But he was at a big rally in Philly this weekend.

ORZULAK: He's doing debate prep.

CARY: Yeah.

ORZULAK: For sure. Nobody thinks it...

CARY: So I think that's part of the game. Our bosses, as you know, in 1992 debated, and Carole Simpson wasn't enforcing the time limits, and President Bush looked at his watch to try to signal to her to enforce the time limits, and that backfired big time 'cause it looked like he was bored and ready to just...

ORZULAK: But that's the thing, right? In these debates, as much as you prepare, as much as you practice lines and ideas, it's always the unscripted moment that somehow always leads the coverage.

INSKEEP: Absolutely. Paul Orzulak and Mary Kate Cary, thanks to you both. Enjoyed the conversation.

CARY: Thank you.

ORZULAK: Pleasure. Thanks. 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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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.