Biden and Trump’s First Debate: What to Watch For

Unfolding in a stable presidential race and a tumultuous election year, the debate may be less likely than past ones to sway voters. But it is still an opportunity for President Trump in particular.

By Shane Goldmacher and Adam Nagourney

The first debate between President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. will begin at 9 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday and run for 90 minutes without commercial interruptions.

The Times will livestream the event, accompanied by analysis and fact-checking from our reporters. The debate will also be carried on channels including ABC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, Fox News, MSNBC and NBC.

Chris Wallace, the anchor of “Fox News Sunday,” will moderate the debate. He played that role in one of the 2016 debates between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton.

The moderator chooses the debate topics. For Tuesday night, Mr. Wallace chose Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Biden’s records, the Supreme Court, the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, race and violence in cities and the integrity of the election. There will be 15 minutes to discuss each topic.

For Trump and Biden, the debate comes with different incentives.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden will walk onto the first presidential debate stage of the 2020 general election with a very different set of political incentives.

For Mr. Trump, it is a much-welcomed chance to shake up a race in which he is currently behind. For Mr. Biden, the debate is a risky but necessary step, a close encounter with an unorthodox rival who can and will say almost anything.

After complaining for months about Mr. Biden’s “basement” strategy, the debate is Mr. Trump’s biggest opportunity to reframe the election as a choice between two competing visions. The Biden campaign continues to cast the race chiefly as a referendum on Mr. Trump’s failures in responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

Two things can be true at once about the stakes of the debate.

First, the presidential race so far has been an extremely stable affair, with little disrupting Mr. Biden’s consistent polling lead — not a pandemic, not record joblessness, not mass protests over policing and racism, and not an unexpected Supreme Court vacancy. A 90-minute debate will be hard-pressed to move the needle more than those factors.

Second, the debate still represents one of Mr. Trump’s best opportunities to jostle the current dynamic, his first chance to speak directly to an audience of tens of millions of Americans alongside Mr. Biden.

How quickly does it go off the rails?

Mr. Trump has always been a showman, and debates have been some of his biggest stages as a politician. He jawbones, interrupts and lashes out in unusually personal ways, and he generally exerts an intense gravitational pull toward whatever he wants the spectacle to be about.

He is all but certain to attack Mr. Biden. It’s also possible he will go after the moderator, Mr. Wallace, whom the president has repeatedly compared unfavorably to his father, the former TV correspondent Mike Wallace.

What past campaigns have shown is that the first half of the first debate often sets the tone — and the tone of news coverage.

Mr. Biden has been pretty clear that he believes that Mrs. Clinton erred four years ago in her debates with Mr. Trump by getting into a back-and-forth argument about character. “She did what every other candidate probably would have done,” Mr. Biden said in January. The resulting debate was an ugly spectacle and, he said, “it all went down the drain.”

Mr. Biden wants to avoid that — and he has been stress-tested by advisers not to respond to Mr. Trump’s obvious provocations if they are not central to his own message.

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