Get ready for tonight’s presidential debate

Inflation, war, abortion, competency and more figure to be on the table in the first meeting of the presumptive candidates in 2024.

The clash tonight between President Joe Biden and ex-President Donald Trump may be the most consequential presidential debate in decades. Biden faces concerns about his age and leadership; Trump will be the only debate participant ever convicted of a felony. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS.

Lighting programmer Ben Starett sets up lights Wednesday in the spin room in Atlanta for tonight’s presidential debate between Biden and Trump on CNN, which starts at 6p.m. GERALD HERBERT — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS.

By KAITLYN SCHALLHORN | SCNG

Get your popcorn (or cocktail, or antacid) and settle in: President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump face off tonight in the first presidential debate of the 2024 general election.

If you’re thinking it’s early for such a showdown — technically neither Biden nor Trump is their party’s official nominee — you’re not wrong. This is the earliest presidential debate in U.S. history.

But, history aside, the early debate is crucial for both candidates. Polling shows both men struggle with likebility. Both also face questions about their ages and mental fitness and competency to be the commander in chief. And Trump brings the additional baggage of his recent felony convictions in a hush-money case.

Though debates offer the candidates a chance to present their policies in an unvarnished way to a huge audience, debates also are theater, a stage on which candidates can perform in a way that — they hope — appeals to voters. That means debates also are a potential minefield, a unique opportunity to slip up or, conversely, to cause their opponent to appear unprepared.

In an era of social media and wall-to-wall news coverage, such moments could haunt or help either candidate for the remainder of the campaign.

“Both Biden and Trump are defined by their weaknesses,” said Dan Schnur, who teaches political messaging at USC and UC Berkeley. “And both need to find a way to reassure skeptical voters that those weaknesses shouldn’t determine their vote.”

For Biden, that’s age. Though at 81 he’s only three years older than Trump, a special counsel report this year described Biden’s memory as “hazy” with “significant limitations.” While Biden’s camp has howled that the description wasn’t fair, the report echoed polling that suggests much of the American public is worried about his competency.

For Trump, one concern is conduct. The former president, known for his volatile and at times outright offensive off-the-cuff remarks, often lashes out at opponents or people he does not like. With his penchant for verbal attacks, it wouldn’t be surprising if Trump hits his opponent over his son, Hunter Biden, who this month was convicted of felony federal gun charges.

Biden, on the other hand, might talk about Trump’s own criminal convictions. Biden’s campaign recently rolled out ads in battleground states highlighting Trump’s legal woes, even though the president previously had generally stayed away from the issue.

And Trump, who just turned 78, has faced questions about his own competency as well, particularly in the wake of recent speeches in which he spoke about sharks and electrocutions.

A CBS News poll from June 13 shows nearly 1 in 4 of all voters (23%) believe neither Biden nor Trump has the “mental and cognitive health” to be president, while just 1 in 12 voters (8%) think both men are up to the task.

Still, allies for both men are hoping their candidates stay on message about policy. And, on that front, one of the biggest topics figures to be immigration.

Juggling the issues

Recent polling shows immigration, along with the economy, is top of mind for many California voters.

For Biden, the debate comes fresh on the heels of recent whipsaw actions on immigration.

On June 4, he signed an executive order to limit migrants’ asylum requests at the southern border and let immigration officials speed up the process of deporting people who illegally enter the U.S. Two weeks later he announced a program meant to help migrant families stay together and aid recipients of deferred action to more swiftly get work visas under certain conditions, a policy that could affect about 500,000 people.

Immigration has been one of the toughest challenges Biden has faced as president, and he’s expected to go on the offensive with it during tonight’s debate, according to CNN, which is hosting the contest.

Trump’s advisers, too, have implored him to focus on such issues as crime, inflation and immigration, CNN reported.

For Trump, a topic that’s proven difficult to navigate is abortion.

His views on the issue haven’t been particularly consistent. Prior to running for president, Trump said he was pro-choice, but he also backed legislation to ban abortion. As president, he nominated conservative justices to the Supreme Court, and three of his appointees were on the high court two years ago this month when it stripped away constitutional protections for abortion, something Trump reminded conservative voters about as recently as last week. Yet he’s also avoided backing an outright national ban on abortion.

While voters’ opinions on abortion have fluctuated over time, polling in the two years since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade has shown a strong swing in favor of abortion rights.

“Trump has to convince (swing) voters that he is more compassionate on abortion than they believe,” Schnur said.

Another sticking point in the debate could be foreign policy, especially the Israel-Hamas war.

Biden has had to walk a tight line between defending Israel, a long-time ally, and supporting Palestinians, a priority, particularly, among the more progressive wing of his party. Trump has said he supports Israel, though he too has urged a quick end to the war.

The House effect

How the candidates fare in Thursday’s debate doesn’t affect just the Biden and Trump campaigns. Most voters who identify as Democrats and Republicans have, it’s safe to say, already made up their minds on which of the two presidential candidates they’re supporting come November.

But how the political parties reach swing voters is crucial, particularly for tight congressional races in Southern California and around the country.

There are a few close House races in California, in particular, that will determine which party has the speaker’s gavel whenever either Biden or Trump (presumably) is in the White House next year. Key races include the 27th Congressional District in Los Angeles County, the 41st in the Inland Empire, and the 45th and 47th in Orange County.

Suppose either candidate uses the debate to take a hard line on an issue that turns off swing voters. If it happens, House candidates will have to decide just how much they can align with their party’s nominee.

Fresh off a prerecorded and political State of the State address, Gov. Gavin Newsom is headed to Atlanta to serve as a post-debate surrogate for the Biden campaign.

Newsom has traveled around the country to campaign for Biden; he was even at a Republican presidential primary debate last year in Simi Valley to tout the president. But his involvement with the debate (he’ll be in the “spin room” post-debate, talking about Biden’s accomplishments onstage, much as conservative allies of Trump will be offering commentary to boost their candidate) only underscores rumors about Newsom’s political ambitions.

“To be fair to Newsom, every supporter of the two candidates isn’t necessarily running for president in four years,” Schnur said. “But most of those other surrogates haven’t been traveling around the country for the last several months expanding their national profile either.”

How to watch

The 90-minute contest will be live on CNN at 6 p.m. local time. Check your listings for channels that will carry the debate.

The debate can also be streamed online. USA Today, for example, will broadcast it on its YouTube page. Two CNN anchors, Dana Bash and Jake Tapper, will serve as debate moderators.

The one-on-one matchup of Biden and Trump will have some rules that haven’t been used in every other presidential debate. For example, there will be no live audience and no opening remarks. Also, candidate microphones will be muted except when it’s their turn to speak. Only paper, pen and a bottle of water will be available to Biden and Trump during the debate.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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