Down in the polls and with a sense of urgency kicking in, President Trump went on the offensive while Democratic nominee Biden stood his ground and pitched himself as a healer to a divided nation.
With the virtual sparring over, US president Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden finally met on the debate stage Tuesday night in Ohio in the biggest moment of the 2020 presidential election campaign so far.
With more than a million voters casting early ballots and time running out to change minds or influence undecided voters, the stakes are huge five weeks before the November 3 election.
Moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, the 74-year-old incumbent and 77-year-old former vice president clashed over the pandemic, taxes and even their own families.
Elegant verbal jousting and substantive witticisms, there was not.
In a chaotic 90-minute back-and-forth, the two major party nominees expressed a level of acrimony and contempt for the other unseen in modern American politics.
What were the biggest takeaways from the first of three slated presidential debates?
Trump’s viral dilemma
With over 7 million cases and 200,000 plus deaths under his watch, Trump has wanted the election to be about anything but the Covid-19 pandemic, but he couldn’t avoid it on stage.
“It is what it is because you are who you are,” Biden told the president, referring to Trump’s months of downplaying the pandemic all the while understanding its severity in private.
Trump’s counter-offensive was to deal in hypotheticals, claiming if Biden were in charge the number of deaths would be well over “two million”.
At one point Biden mocked Trump when recalling the president’s suggestion that people inject disinfectant into their bodies to combat the virus and highlighted his dismissive remarks on mask wearing and social distancing.
But through the fog of insults and interruptions, Biden’s prosecution of the case against the president’s handling of the pandemic, the economy and health care – particularly the effects of gutting Obamacare – stood out early on.
Disputes over race
When the portion of the debate turned to matters of law and order, Trump declined to condemn white supremacy and right-wing extremism when prompted by Wallace and Biden, and replied with a call to arms rather than a denunciation.
“Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by,” Trump said, before pivoting: “Somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left.”
The Proud Boys, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, are a group that maintains affiliations with extremists and is known for misogynistic and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
A few minutes after the debate, the Proud Boys’ social media accounts had tweeted a video of Trump’s statement. “YES SIR, PROUD BOYS STANDING BY,” it said.
This is not a right-wing problem; this is a left-wing problem,” Trump said, contradicting his own FBI Director Christopher Wray, who told Congress that racially motivated extremism makes up the largest share of the FBI’s domestic terrorism cases and that white supremacist ideology drives the bulk of those cases.
Trump, who has run a campaign stoking many of the country’s racial divisions, stood in contrast to Biden, who sought to cast himself as a healer.
“He keeps trying to rile everything up. He doesn’t want to calm things down,” Biden said. “Instead of going in and talking to people and saying, ‘Let’s get everyone together and figure out how to deal with this,’ what does he do? He just pours gasoline on the fire.”
Light on policy, heavy on insults
It was immediately evident from the outset the difference in style and tone between the two nominees.
Trailing by seven points in the polls coming into the debate, Trump adopted the role of unbridled aggressor – a strategy underpinned by a sense of urgency – as the crossfire descended into name-calling and hectoring within the first 15 minutes.
Wallace, lauded as one of the most fearsome interviewers on national television, was unable to rein in the candidates and lost control almost immediately.
“I am the moderator of this debate, let me ask my question,” he would plead haplessly amid the cacophony of voices.
Haranguing Biden at almost every turn, the president at one point claimed Biden had finished at the bottom of his college class. “There’s nothing smart about you,” Trump said to his opponent.
Family wasn’t spared either as Trump went after Biden’s son Hunter, whom he claimed was dishonourably discharged from the military and had a cocaine habit.
The usually mild-mannered Biden, clearly exasperated and struggling to keep his cool at times, threw in a few quips of his own.
Perhaps the most memorable were one-liners – “Will you shut up, man?” “Keep yappin’, man.” “It’s hard to get a word in with this clown” – he said at one point as Trump repeatedly tried to speak over him.
When the question of Trump’s tax returns came up, Trump claimed that he would release his records “when they were ready” and Biden chimed in by responding, “when? Inshallah,” using the Arabic word for God willing.
As he has before, Trump was pressed on what his plan is to replace Obamacare, to which the president just said that he wanted to gut it.
On the supreme court, the two men split over whether it was appropriate for Trump to nominate a new justice to the court so close to an election, with the president defiantly stating the rationale for doing so: “We won the election,” he said, “and we have the right to do it.”
When pressed on whether he believed in climate change, Trump said, “I think to an extent yes,” before adding: “We’re planting a billion trees.”
Trump the outsider, not incumbent
The anti-establishment posturing and populist rhetoric that Trump adopted worked well for him in 2016, when he had a clear message against his opponent Hillary Clinton, as he shrewdly exploited policy issues surrounding immigration, trade, Obamacare, and personal issues of alleged corruption against Clinton.
The most coherent interpretation of the Trump campaign’s messaging during the debate was one that painted the centrist Biden as a left-wing radical who was going to “tank the economy” and “defund the police”.
Trump still tries to present himself as the outsider candidate – but he has a four-year record to defend. He wants to prosecute Biden as the swampy career politician, notably referring to Biden’s 47 years in office on numerous occasions.
Trump came in seeking to dominate Biden by portraying him as weak and beholden to the far-left fringe of his party; Biden came in eager to talk to Americans, responding to multiple questions by talking straight into the camera and urging the public to vote.
In the end, did the debate move the needle for either candidate?
It’s hard to imagine Trump won over many undecided voters in the suburbs, where he trails Biden, or anywhere else.
Trump’s performance is unlikely to have gained him support beyond his base, which is locked-in at around 40 percent. Trump cannot afford to alienate important swing voters, who were crucial to his 2016 victory.
For Biden, who momentarily remains the frontrunner, all that might be required is to stand his ground and avoid a total meltdown.
If the next two debates are anything like what some in the US media called a “dumpster fire” last night, then there will be no winners and just one loser: America.