Millions of American voters will have their first opportunity to compare the presidential candidates side-by-side on Monday night, when Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump meet in the first presidential debate in New York.
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The first of three debates, Monday's faceoff is expected to draw in a record television audience. According to recent polls, the debates will help up to half of U.S. voters to decide between the two.
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The Democratic nominee is preparing for an unpredictable opponent who “hangs back a lot, picks his moments” and “may be aggressive,” Clinton campaign's communications director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters this week. What she needs to do is to drive home her message to voters regardless of her opponent's behavior, Palmieri said.
According to the Bloomberg news site, Trump's aides are advising him to question Clinton's judgment, intelligence and achievements, and to confront over controversies surrounding the Clinton Foundation, her private email server and her paid Wall Street speaking engagements. The goal is to put her on the offensive, the report said.
But Trump's advisers are also reportedly concerned that he may come across as a bully. To prepare for the debate, the Trump campaign emailed a survey to supporters, with one of the questions being "Do you think Trump should refer to Hillary as 'Crooked Hillary' on stage?"
The debate at Hofstra University is held six weeks before the Nov. 8 election. Over the last three weeks, Clinton’s once-large national lead has shrunken to two points.
“It’s going to be a high-stakes drama,” Peter Hart, a leading Democratic pollster, told Bloomberg. “In an hour-and-a-half or two, opinions get suspended and people look at the candidates, on large measure, afresh. There are a certain number of open windows for people to look and decide what they’re feeling.”
“Voters who say ‘I worry that I can't relate to Hillary’ will get an opportunity to see her. Voters who wonder if Donald Trump has the temperament or the knowledge to be president, they get to see that," he said.
The debate will be divided into six 15-minute segments on topics chosen by moderator Lester Holt, anchor of NBC Nightly News. Two questions will be asked in each of these categories: “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity” and “Securing America.”
Holt will begin each segment with a question, to which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Then they’ll get a chance to respond to each other.
Holt himself has become part of the pre-debate tussle. Clinton allies have demanded that Holt intervene to correct Trump if he lies blatantly. Meanwhile Trump, though he had described Holt as “fair” and “a good guy” in the past, has also said in an interview with CNBC earlier this month that he expects Holt will treat him “very unfairly.”
It is possible that the debate will be the most-watched campaign event in American history. Adweek cited a Fox News Channel executive this week as saying that he expects 80 million to watch the event.
For Trump, the challenges will be to intelligently deal with questions about policy, avoid offending any large population group, and avoid being seen as sexist. For Clinton, the challenges will be addressing her email scandal without being evasive, sounding authentic while delivering rehearsed lines and dealing with an unpredictable opponent.
True to character, the candidates have prepared in very different ways for the debate.
Clinton reportedly cleared much of her late-September schedule to prepare at her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., she studied Trump’s passed debates and planned out her approaches to the “different Trumps that might show up,” her senior aide, Palmieri, told reporters on Wednesday.
Trump has reportedly refused to do a mock debate, preferring instead to go through possible questions and answers with top advisers on plane trips. Last week alone, he spent time with Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Flynn and Ben Carson, Bloomberg reported.
“I believe you can prep too much for those things. It can be dangerous,” he recently told the New York Times.