How the Biden-Trump Debate could Change the Trajectory of the 2024 Campaign

AP Photo
This combination of photos taken in Columbia, S.C. shows former President Donald Trump, left, on Feb. 24, 2024, and President Joe Biden on Jan. 27, 2024.

ATLANTA (AP) — President Joe Biden and his Republican rival, Donald Trump, were set to face off Thursday evening for a debate that offered an unparalleled opportunity for the two candidates to try to reshape the presidential race.

Biden, the Democratic incumbent, will have the chance to reassure voters that, at 81, he’s capable of guiding the U.S. through a range of challenges. The 78-year-old Trump, meanwhile, may use the moment to try to move past his felony conviction in New York and convince an audience of tens of millions that he’s temperamentally suited to return to the Oval Office.

Biden and Trump entered the night facing stiff headwinds, including a public weary of the tumult of partisan politics and broadly dissatisfied with both, according to polling. But the debate was likely to highlight how they have sharply different visions on virtually every core issue — abortion, the economy and foreign policy — and deep hostility toward each other.

The current president and his predecessor haven’t spoken since their last debate weeks before the 2020 presidential election. Trump skipped Biden’s inauguration after leading an unprecedented and unsuccessful effort to overturn his loss that culminated in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection by his supporters.

Trump has promised sweeping plans to remake the U.S. government if he returns to the White House and Biden argues that his opponent would pose an existential threat to the nation’s democracy.

Thursday’s broadcast on CNN, moderated by anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, will be the earliest general election debate in history. It’s the first-ever televised general election presidential debate hosted by a single news outlet after both campaigns ditched the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which had organized every matchup since 1988.

Aiming to avoid a repeat of their chaotic 2020 matchups, Biden insisted — and Trump agreed — to hold the debate without an audience and to allow the network to mute the candidates’ microphones when it is not their turn to speak. There will be two commercial breaks, another departure from modern practice. The candidates have agreed not to consult staff or others while the cameras are off.

Trump and his aides have spent months chronicling what they argue are signs of Biden’s diminished stamina. In recent days, they’ve started to predict Biden will be stronger on Thursday, aiming to raise expectations for the incumbent.

Biden’s team too predicted that he would rise to the occasion, and expressed hope that Trump would be forced to address his positions they believe are anathema to voters.

“Joe’s ready to go. He’s prepared. He’s confident,” his wife, Jill Biden, told donors ahead of the debate. “You know what a great debater he is.”

Heading out of the debate, both Biden and Trump will travel to states they hope to swing their way this fall. Trump is heading to Virginia, a onetime battleground that has shifted toward Democrats in recent years.

Biden is set to jet off to North Carolina, where he is expected to hold the largest-yet rally of his campaign in a state Trump narrowly carried in 2020.