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Joe Biden's debate-rematch quandary: How do you solve a problem like The Donald?

Last Updated Oct 21, 2020 at 2:24 pm EST

WASHINGTON, Wash. — Viewers might be watching television through their fingers Thursday night — not the latest gory Halloween thriller, but the two men vying to be the next president of the United States.

It’s the sequel to last month’s debate horror show between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, an invective-laced 90 minutes that laid bare the depths to which political discourse can sink in an American election year.

Even superfans of the genre are nervous.

“I watched last time, and I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t make it through the debate,” said Will Stewart, a senior vice-president with Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Toronto and self-described political junkie who has worked in Ontario conservative politics.

“Normally it’s Super Bowl weekend for people like me to watch the U.S. presidential debate. And I couldn’t even watch it.”

This time, the audience won’t be the only ones hovering over the mute button.

To ensure both candidates get at least some time to speak uninterrupted, the Commission on Presidential Debates will turn off the opposing candidate’s microphone for two minutes at the start of each 15-minute segment. 

The debate, which is at Belmont University in Tennessee, will be moderated by NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker. Topics include American families, race relations, climate change, national security and leadership. 

The focus, however, will be squarely on the president.

During last month’s clash in Ohio, Trump interrupted, antagonized and irritated his Democratic rival from the outset, vexing moderator Chris Wallace and eliciting an exasperated plea for order from Biden himself: “Will you shut up, man?” 

And that was only the first 15 minutes. 

This time, Biden would do well to ignore the president’s “buzz saw” approach, or at least find a way to short-circuit it, said Stewart, who is no stranger to the rituals of debate prep. 

“He needs to figure out a way to dismiss Donald Trump, to push him aside,” Stewart said. Sinking to the president’s level would be the wrong approach. 

“(Biden) is the front-runner, he is winning this. He needs to assure people that he’s presidential material at this point.”

Experts say Trump may have created an opening for himself by taking expectations of his performance so low, it would be easy to exceed them. 

Low expectations can be a huge advantage, said Dwight Duncan, a former Liberal cabinet minister in Ontario who helped Dalton McGuinty and Justin Trudeau practise for the most important debates of their careers. 

He recalled how, early in the 2015 campaign that put Trudeau in the Prime Minister’s Office, Conservative spokesman Kory Teneycke suggested all the Liberal leader needed to do to exceed expectations was show up with pants on. 

The next day, during a full-on dress rehearsal complete with cameras, microphones and various Liberal operatives standing in for the other party leaders, Trudeau decided to lighten the mood. 

“We were all getting ready, and the prime minister comes walking out with his pants off, and boxer shorts,” Duncan laughed. “It was just an example of, you know, he was so ready and so relaxed that day.” 

Of course, just because Trump might be capable of exceeding expectations doesn’t mean he will. 

“This is his last chance, in my view, to stay competitive, and so there’s a much greater onus on him to do better,” Duncan said. 

“I can see him, if they turn the mic off, just shouting over the mic or even walking off the stage. I mean, what’s to prevent him? He’s got nothing to lose right now at this point.”

Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s former principal secretary and another veteran of debate prep and election strategizing, agreed Trump has an opportunity Thursday to surprise people. Whether he will is another matter. 

“I expect to see Trump very aggressive, fighting like someone who is behind in the polls and knows he needs to make up ground,” Butts said. 

“I expect to see Biden try to be consistent with the person has been throughout the campaign. If polls are to be believed, he’s in a good spot going into the last couple of weeks of the campaign, and I think his challenge is to continue to project empathy and confidence.”

It’s also safe to assume there will be more spectacle than substance on display Thursday night. Oddsmakers are taking advantage. 

Online betting site Betonline.ag is giving odds on everything from whether the candidates will be seen wearing face masks to which familiar catchphrases or folksy bromides will be uttered first. 

Fans of The Fly — the one that buzzed Mike Pence, not the Jeff Goldblum remake — might be interested to know that if an insect interrupts the proceedings, they can place a prop bet on whose head it lands on first. Trump is favoured. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 21, 2020.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press