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Campaigns ready for debates one week out

In the weeks ahead of the debate, the Biden-Harris campaign has sharpened its criticism of Trump on issues including abortion.
President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump
Posted at 8:08 PM, Jun 20, 2024

One week until the first debate of the 2024 presidential election, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are offering contrasting approaches to the debate stage.

While President Biden will be surrounded by senior advisers ahead of the debate, Trump’s campaign has appeared to downplay preparation for the meeting between the candidates in Atlanta.

In the days ahead of the debate, President Biden heads to Camp David. The presidential retreat has served President Biden as a site for holidays, notable meetings with foreign heads of state and preparation for the State of the Union Address.

Senior campaign aides and longtime advisers are expected to be present for debate prep, led by former White House chief of staff Ron Klain, according to a campaign official. “He is as tough, smart, determined, and persistent as anyone I have ever met,” President Biden stated at the time of Klain’s departure from the White House last year. But the campaign also acknowledges there is less debate preparation time this election cycle because of President Biden’s role as president, the official noting the preparation will be “confined to immediately prior.”

In the weeks ahead of the debate, the Biden-Harris campaign has sharpened its criticism of Trump on issues including abortion, Jan. 6, democracy, the economy and Trump’s recent criminal conviction, while framing the election as a choice.

“Folks, it’s clearer every day: The threat Trump poses would be greater in a second term than it was in his first term,” President Biden told supporters at a recent campaign reception.

The “punchier” comments from President Biden are expected to continue into the debate.

“The President has gotten increasingly punchier in recent remarks about Trump, and plans to carry that theme through to the debate, while still projecting himself as the wise and steady leader in contrast to Trump’s chaos and division,” a campaign official stated.

President Biden will look to “hold Trump accountable for his extreme record and the dangerous things he’s been saying on the trail,” according to the official, including on reproductive rights, promoting political violence, undermining democratic institutions and his tax plans.

“This is the Trump agenda in 2024. And on June 27, it will be on full display in prime time for the American people to see in 4K. Joe Biden will hold Donald Trump accountable for all of it on the debate stage — and he’s raring to go,” campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon wrote in a memo last month.

On the debate stage, President Biden will have to balance underscoring an affirmative message, according to former deputy communications director for Biden’s 2020 campaign, Bill Russo.

“He's an accomplished debater,” Russo said. “He's been up against Donald Trump.”

But Russo noted President Biden will need to prepare for “the shouty, angry Trump,” “the rally Trump” but also the “kind of fake moderate Trump,” who may have an opportunity to gain support, noting the more disciplined operation around Trump this election cycle.

“You have to prepare to rebut that Trump, but not get sucked into the trap of only responding to Trump, only rebutting Trump, because the real opportunity here for the president, for the campaign, is that you will have a national audience that will get to see in kind of crystal clear side-by-side color, what is at stake in this election and what the choice is before the American people,” Russo said.

“I think [Biden] has the policies and the successes in this administration that you know, the American people want and want to hear more about. But if the entire debate is kind of fought on Donald Trump's turf, that won't be an opportunity to get this success,” Russo said.

Meanwhile, Trump has held policy sessions with lawmakers, according to reporting from the New York Times, and just days before the debates, is slated to speak in front of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and hold a rally in Philadelphia.

“He's been a nightmare for this country. He's destroying, he is destroying, our country's the worst we've ever had,” Trump recently told supporters at a rally of his opponent. Pointing to the debate, he claimed, “I’ll probably be negotiating with three people, but that’s okay, I’ve done that before. I’ll be debating three people instead of one half of a person,” Trump told the crowd last week.

It’s rally speeches like those his campaign is pointing to ahead of the debate, appearing to downplay preparation.

“President Trump takes on numerous tough interviews every single week and delivers lengthy rally speeches while standing, demonstrating elite stamina. He does not need to be programmed by staff or shot up with chemicals like Joe Biden does,” Trump senior campaign adviser Jason Miller stated, though there is no evidence supporting his claims of chemical use by the president.

But some contend there is no doubt preparation is underway for both campaigns.

“The first rule of the debates is lower expectations, because the debates are not won or lost based upon your point scoring system or anything like that. It's really about whether or not each candidate performed up to expectations or exceeded expectations. And so that's why we see both the camps trying to lower the expectations so they can exceed those,” said Todd Belt, the political management program director at George Washington University.

The June 27 CNN-hosted debate will break from historic norms to take place before each party’s nominating convention. The rules include no studio audience, muted microphones and no notes.

“And I think because of that, we're actually going to hear more policy discussion,” Belt said.

For President Biden, the debate will come days after the anniversary of the overturn of the right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade; as the White House looks to show progress lowering prices in its economic plan; on the heels of major border policy tightening asylum claims for unlawful crossings and providing greater protection to migrant spouses of U.S. citizens; and following significant diplomatic engagements abroad amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

For Trump, the debate will come as he criticizes President Biden over global conflicts, the economy and the border, promising a return to Trump-era migration policies, seeks to blame President Biden for his legal woes and touts appointing the Supreme Court justices who ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“Be forward-looking, talk about the future. President Trump has solutions to the problems this country is facing — illegal immigration, inflation. And if he focuses on the issues and his solutions, he’s going to be a walk-away winner,” advised Republican Sen. Cynthia Lummis.

“You want to take away issues or perceptions that you think can hurt you. And for Biden, that's his age and the issue of immigration. So I expect him to talk a bit about that, how Donald Trump is behind scuttling the immigration deal,” Belt said. “For Donald Trump, he's probably going to try to appear more presidential and less bombastic as he does in his super rallies. And the reason for that is there are concerns about, you know, him being a threat to democracy and he wants to erase some of those concerns as well as part of this inoculation.”

Third-party candidates Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Jill Stein will not be present on the stage. Stein told Scripps News she’s filed a formal complaintwith the Federal Election Commission.

CNN’s criteria for debate participation include meeting the polling threshold of 15% across four different polls, and being on enough ballots to mathematically have a chance to be president.

A week ahead of the debate, the race remains close between President Biden and Trump. A new FOX News poll gave President Biden an edge by two points, and a Morning Consult poll gave President Biden the edge by a point.

While Atlanta will mark the first debate for the two for the 2024 election, it won’t be the last.

The second debate is scheduled for Sept. 10, hosted by ABC News.