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Biden and Trump Gear Up for the Debates

  • September 18, 2020
Attendees at a mask-mandatory town-hall-style event on Thursday. It was one of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s first opportunities as the Democratic nominee to take questions directly from voters.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Joseph R. Biden Jr. has strategically ceded center stage to President Trump — until recently adopting a shelter-in-place strategy that minimized mistakes but maximized angst among Democrats who questioned his capacity to generate enthusiasm.

Mr. Biden, appearing at a mask-mandatory CNN town hall before Mr. Trump’s flashier outdoor rally in Wisconsin later that evening, seemed relieved to be out of lockdown, and delivered a sturdy, if not especially electrifying, 90-minute performance that is likely to neither undermine nor boost his standing in the polls.

It was one of Mr. Biden’s first opportunities so far as the Democratic nominee to take questions directly from voters and to press his candidacy to a broad audience.

Here are three takeaways:

Mr. Trump and his backers have spent months suggesting, without proof, that Mr. Biden is in cognitive decline. Mr. Trump has baselessly insinuated that Mr. Biden is taking performance-enhancing drugs — and his campaign even put together a mocking worst-of video of Mr. Biden’s verbal stumbles.

Making fun of a fellow septuagenarian seems to delight Mr. Trump, who has also faced questions about his mental fitness. But Republican officials outside Mr. Trump’s inner circle fret that the attacks set the bar laughably low for Mr. Biden at the upcoming debates.

Despite a few miscues on Thursday night, Mr. Biden was lucid, sprightly, relaxed and conversant with granular details on energy policy, international relations, the economy and agricultural policy.

At one point, he had to stop himself from going on a tangent about “fertilizer and water tables.”

Mr. Trump’s town hall on ABC earlier in the week had the feel of a confrontation between a chef and a restaurant full of angry patrons who hated what they were served. One of the first questions he faced was why he had thrown America “under the bus” during the pandemic. It did not get much better from there.

CNN scheduled Mr. Biden’s event near Scranton, Pa., his hometown, and Mr. Biden took fullest home-field advantage — defusing potentially uncomfortable moments with folksy banter. When a former local police chief started to ask him a question about his stance on law and order, Mr. Biden interrupted with, “Didn’t I meet you when you were chief?”

“We did, sir,” the man responded.

There were a lot of questions like this one, from Susan Connors, who runs a small business in Scranton: “I look out over my Biden sign in my front yard and I see a sea of Trump flags and yard signs and my question is, what is your plan to build a bridge with voters from the opposing party to lead us forward toward a common future?”

Mr. Biden, who has long cited his history of working across the aisle, answered by noting that while he was “running as a Democrat,” he would be “America’s president” if elected.

A problem that vexed Hillary Clinton’s team for much of 2016 was this: How could a Manhattan billionaire developer, born into wealth, out-populist Democrats (like her) with actual working-class roots?

Mr. Biden has made millions since leaving office, but his entire political career has been based on his “Amtrak Joe” persona, and he wore it easily on Thursday.

Mr. Trump tends to aggrandize his intellectual and collegiate credentials, referring to his business degree from Wharton as “super genius stuff.” On Thursday, Mr. Biden, who went to the University of Delaware and Syracuse Law School, took it in the other direction.

“Who the hell makes you think I need an Ivy League degree to be president?” he asked. “I really do view this campaign as a campaign between Scranton and Park Avenue.”

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