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Here’s what to expect and look for in tonight’s presidential debate

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 29, 2020

Chairs are seen in social distance spacing ahead of the first presidential debate between Republican candidate President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate former Vice President Joe Biden at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) ORG XMIT: OHJC103 (Julio Cortez)
Chairs are seen in social distance spacing ahead of the first presidential debate between Republican candidate President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate former Vice President Joe Biden at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) ORG XMIT: OHJC103 (Julio Cortez)

Although the specific questions to be asked of President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are up to debate moderator Chris Wallace, six general topics for the forum have been announced.

A seventh, regarding a New York Times report over the weekend that Trump paid little or no taxes over the last 15 years, could also come up.

The debate starts at 6 p.m. and is expected to last until 7:30 p.m.

Here are the announced topics, some things each candidate has said about them and some things to look for as the debate progresses.

The candidates’ records

Trump is likely to talk about several highlights of his first term, including the tax cuts of 2017, efforts to restrict immigration and build a wall along portions of the U.S. border with Mexico, increased spending on the military and relations with North Korea, shrinking the territory controlled by ISIS in the Middle East, creation of the Space Force and recent agreements between Israel and some Arab countries. 

Biden could counter with the trade war with China, the fact that Trump took money from the defense budget to build the wall, and the fact that North Korea still has nuclear weapons and has tested missiles.

The former vice president is likely to talk about his role in the Obama administration on such subjects as the Affordable Care Act, recovery from last decade’s recession and the Ebola outbreak.

He may also say he has a record of working with Republicans during his decades in the Senate, bring up his blue-collar childhood and talk about the tragedies in his life that make it possible for him to relate to things other Americans are facing. He may have to defend his support for the 1994 Crime Bill.

Look for: Wallace to press both on working with the opposite party and bringing down the heated rhetoric.

The Supreme Court

Trump has made three nominations to the nation’s highest court, which is unusual for a single term. The first two were confirmed; the third, Amy Coney Barrett, was nominated Saturday to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and could be confirmed before election day on Nov. 3. He has said he will appoint only justices who believe in strict interpretation of the Constitution and has promised to overturn Roe v. Wade.

He has also said he wants a ninth member on the court to avoid a tie in any challenges to the presidential election, which he has predicted “will end up in the Supreme Court.”

Biden has framed Trump’s latest pick as a way to stack the deck in the president’s efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act, as Barrett has been critical of the decision that affirmed that law. He may also raise the spectre of overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision legalizing abortion.

Like Democrats in the Senate, Biden has said a replacement for Ginsburg should be nominated by the winner of the Nov. 3 election and approved by the next Congress. He has criticized Senate Republicans for blocking the nomination of Merrick Garland for nine months in 2016 because of that year’s presidential election but rushing to consider Barrett four years later.

Look for: The candidates to be asked about a proposal by some Democrats to increase the size of the Supreme Court if Biden wins and they take control of the Senate. Biden has said he doesn’t agree with that but will likely be asked about it. Trump may say it would be fine with him if he wins and gets more appointments.


Trump has made a series of controversial statements about the virus, at various points saying it was under control, that there would be few cases that would disappear, or that it would go away in the summer. He has wondered aloud about unusual treatments like putting disinfectants or ultraviolet light in the body, backed the drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment that studies later disputed and held rallies with large crowds who don’t wear masks, in contradiction of CDC guidelines.

But he will likely point to his early decision to close the country to some visitors from China, efforts to increase the number of ventilators for the sickest of hospitalized COVID-19 patients and the rapid pace at which researchers are pursuing a vaccine.

Biden has said Trump failed in the early months of the pandemic to take the proper steps to slow the spread of the virus and should have invoked the Defense Production Act for scarce items needed for patients and the people treating them like personal protective equipment.

Look for: Biden to bring up the Trump Administration joining a lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act that would throw millions off health insurance during a pandemic, and Trump to counter with a promise to replace it with something better and cheaper that includes coverage of pre-existing conditions.

The economy

Trump tends to describe his work over the last 3 years and 9 months with superlatives, saying he “created the greatest economy in history” before the COVID-19 pandemic forced significant disruptions. The median family income reached an all-time high in 2019, with record employment. 

That cratered in March and April, with steep drops in unemployment. Trump talks about record job growth, with 10.6 million jobs created since May, but often neglects to add that 20 million people lost jobs because of the pandemic, or the high numbers of workers still receiving unemployment benefits.  

He also talks frequently about high stock markets, which hit records in early September and remain high.

Biden is critical of the way the 2017 tax cuts went to the wealthy and resulted in corporations buying back stocks or sending jobs offshore rather than investing in equipment or workers. He wants to make it easier for unions to organize, increase manufacturing, invest in technology and have a “Buy American” policy, expanding the production of what he calls the critical supply chain like those needed early in the pandemic that had to be purchased from overseas.

Look for: Trump to attack Biden’s economic plan as including the “Green New Deal” and other ideas from the progressive wing of the Democrats. His energy plan is different, but the question is whether he can articulate how in a short time frame.

Election integrity

Trump has said the only way he can lose the election is if there is fraud, and has not agreed to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose. His main target is mail balloting. Although he votes by absentee ballot, which he and his wife request from Florida, Trump is primarily critical of efforts to expand absentee voting to accommodate voters in states with polling stations or to switch to mail-in balloting because of the pandemic.

He contends mail-in balloting is subject to fraud, although most elections experts say voter fraud in general is rare and mail-in voting is no more subject to fraud than poll site voting.

In 2016, Trump also said he believed the election was rigged, although his primary target then was the Electoral College, which he once called “a disaster for democracy.” After he lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College, he called the constitutional system of selecting the president “genius” because it brings all states into play.

Biden has supported expanded mail-in voting during the pandemic. Although many of his rivals in the Democratic presidential primaries supported eliminating the Electoral College, he did not. Asked at a CNN town hall meeting earlier this month if he would accept the results of the election, he replied “Sure. Count every vote.”

Look for: Biden or Wallace to press Trump on accepting the results when votes are counted.

Race and policing

One of Trump’s main campaign themes is “law and order,” which has included praising police and criticizing protests, calling them acts of domestic terrorism and blaming antifascist counter-protesters to police and right-wing organizations. He has been particularly critical of Seattle and Portland, where some ongoing protests have turned violent and said he’d clean them up if local officials would let him send federal forces in.

If Biden is elected, he has told supporters at rallies, the country won’t be safe.

Biden has called for an end to the violence, saying it won’t bring the needed change, but has blamed Trump for fomenting the violence rather than calming the nation. He called for charges to be filed in the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black EMT in Louisville who was killed when police served a warrant on her apartment and her boyfriend said he thought their home was being invaded and fired on police.

He has said he supports a series of reforms, including a ban on chokeholds like the one used on George Floyd and changes to the process for obtaining no-knock warrants.

Look for: Trump to accuse Biden of supporting the calls of some progressives to “defund the police.” Biden has said he does not back that strategy.

Wild card: Trump taxes

After the topics were selected for the debate, the New York Times reported it has documents showing Trump has paid little or no taxes in the past 15 years, something the president has denied and called “fake news.” 

It’s such a controversial topic that Wallace is likely to bring it up at some point

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