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Trump v Biden: Everything we know about presidential debates goes out the window

It’s the eve of the first presidential debate of this unprecedentedly cacophonous election season. The race was shaken up just last week by the death of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And today, there’s a new concussion.

The New York Times lands the holy grail of journalism in the Trump era: A history of this larcenous President’s personal income taxes. The searing report details malfeasance on several levels, and promises to give both moderator Chris Wallace and challenger Joe Biden lots to talk about at the first meeting of the candidates. (The debate begins at 11am AEST on Wednesday.)

Donald Trump and Joe Biden are set to face off in the first of the presidential debates this week.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden are set to face off in the first of the presidential debates this week.Credit:AP

Like everything else in this unusual campaign, everything we knew about debates has gone out the window. There will be no audience for the candidates to debating before. There will accordingly be no clapping or laughter, cheers or groans. President Trump has done his opponent a favour by nicknaming him “Sleepy Joe”; in debate strategy, this is known as lowering expectations, but it’s generally something you want to do for yourself, not your opponent. (Trump, back-pedalling, now suggests that if Biden does well in the debate it will be because he is using drugs.)

In recent US political history, debate moments that affect a campaign are highly unusual and generally aren’t recognised at the time. Only later, for example, in 1960, did it become apparent that then vice-president Richard Nixon looked swarthy and grim next to a charming and shiny John F. Kennedy in the first modern political debates, broadcast on the newfangled thing called television. In 1980, then-candidate Ronald Reagan, whose image was that of a not-too-bright warmonger, presented an affable mien and dismissed attacks from then-president Jimmy Carter with a genial “There he goes again”.

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More often, debates reaffirm the status quo, or merely disrupt it for a few days. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was calm and businesslike in the face of Donald Trump’s schoolyard insults during their debates, and she still lost. One interesting note: Incumbent presidents, who often get accustomed, in their four years in office, to having yes men around, sometimes get beaten up in their first debates, as Barack Obama did at the hands of challenger Mitt Romney in 2012.

This incumbent president is behind in the polls; an enormous wave of early voting beginning next week will begin to lock that advantage in for challenger Biden. Trump is a highly tactical person; he finds himself in fix after fix, and then casts about looking for a way out of the mess he’s made. That characteristic, more than anything else, makes the question of what will happen in this week’s debate anyone’s guess.

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