Trump vs. Clinton: Debate will mark
biggest moment of election
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[September 22, 2016]
By Steve Holland and Amanda Becker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrat Hillary
Clinton, suddenly vulnerable in the presidential race, is under pressure
to deliver a strong performance against Republican Donald Trump in their
first debate on Monday, a moment that could be the most consequential
yet of the 2016 election.
Political veterans involved in preparing for past presidential debates
said Clinton should drive home how she would run the country during
uncertain times and draw a contrast as the steady, experienced
alternative to the untested Trump. For his part, Trump needed to show
enough gravitas to convince skeptics that he is ready to be commander in
chief, they said.
The 90-minute face-off at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, the
first of three debates, takes place at a time when Clinton's
once-comfortable lead in opinion polls over the former reality TV star
History shows that a single bad debate performance can alter the
trajectory of a U.S. presidential race. Reuters/Ipsos polling shows
about 20 percent of the electorate remains undecided, far higher at this
stage in the campaign than the 12 percent undecided four years ago.
"I am going to do my very best to communicate as clearly and fearlessly
as I can in the face of the insults and the attacks and the bullying and
the bigotry that we have seen coming from my opponent," Clinton said on
Tuesday on the Steve Harvey Radio show.
Anita Dunn, who helped President Barack Obama prepare for debates
against Republican nominee John McCain in 2008, said Obama succeeded at
their first debate by steering the conversation repeatedly back to the
struggling U.S. economy even though the event was supposed to be about
She said she expected Clinton to try to exploit Trump's weaknesses and
emphasize her strengths. "The contrast between them is what you want to
hone," she said.
The debate will be the best opportunity for two candidates, both widely
seen by voters as untrustworthy, to put to rest questions about their
fitness for the White House with the Nov. 8 election fast approaching.
Even the candidates' body language will be closely scrutinized, just as
it has been in past elections.
Brett O'Donnell, a debate coach who helped President George W. Bush in
his 2004 debates and McCain in 2008, said Bush did not put in the
necessary work for his first debate against Democrat John Kerry that
year and it showed.
Quickly put on the defensive, Bush blinked rapidly and slouched behind
the lectern. Kerry was judged the winner. Bush got more serious about
the debates after that, O'Donnell said.
Clinton had a shaky performance at a Sept. 7 NBC "Commander in Chief"
forum where she became prickly in response to questions about her
handling of classified emails while serving as U.S. secretary of state.
"Presentation is very important and Hillary has to work on that. Her
presentation at the Commander in Chief forum was not very good. She
didn’t come off as likeable. She came off as sour and defensive,"
Clinton is spending most of this week in debate preparations with a
small circle of top aides at her home in New York.
Clinton aides said she is preparing for two scenarios: One in which
Trump is measured and serious, and another in which he is freewheeling
and makes inflammatory personal attacks.
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A combination photo shows U.S. Democratic presidential candidate
Hillary Clinton (L) and Republican U.S. presidential candidate
Donald Trump (R) in Los Angeles, California on May 5, 2016 and in
Eugene, Oregon, U.S. on May 6, 2016 respectively. REUTERS/Lucy
Nicholson (L) and Jim Urquhart/File Photos
Trump relied on his famed spontaneity to fire off one-line zingers
to dismantle 16 Republican rivals during the primaries, dispatching
"low-energy" Jeb Bush or "lying Ted" Cruz and "little Marco" Rubio.
He has repeatedly called Clinton "Crooked Hillary" at rallies.
"You're just not sure who is going to show up,” said Jennifer
Palmieri, a senior adviser to Clinton. “He may be aggressive or he
may lay back. That’s hard to game out necessarily so I would say
most of the focus is on what points does she want to make.”
Rick Lazio, a Republican former congressman from New York, found
Clinton a tough opponent when he faced her in a U.S. Senate debate
in New York in 2000.
He was seen as bullying, lost the debate and the election, and now
says Trump will need to treat Clinton carefully.
"What he has to avoid is a sense that he is name calling, highly
disrespectful, badgering, anything like that," he said.
Former Republican Senator Judd Gregg, who played Democrats Al Gore
and John Kerry in George W. Bush's mock debate sessions in 2000 and
2004, said Bush began preparing in early June unbeknownst to the
press and for a while did two practice sessions a day.
For that reason, he said, he suspects Trump is doing more
preparation work than he lets on.
"I have to believe he is doing something because it would be foolish
to go in there and not practice at hearing lines," he said.
A Republican source close to the campaign said former Fox News chief
executive Roger Ailes has been coaching Trump but that the former
reality TV star does not want to be over-prepared.
Trump spokesman Jason Miller said Trump is preparing for the debate
but "there's nobody who's playing the role of Hillary Clinton."
"Mr. Trump prepares for everything that he does and one of the
things to keep in mind going back to the primaries was that
everybody said it was the professional politicians who would run the
table and it was Mr. Trump who did very well," he said.
(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker and Richard Cowan; Editing by
Caren Bohan and Ross Colvin)
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