Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were neck and neck Monday as they girded for their first presidential debate, an intensely anticipated clash of opposites that could set the tone for the last six weeks of the White House race. An estimated 90 million people were expected to watch the Democratic and Republican candidates go toe-to-toe for 90 minutes starting at 9:00 pm (0100 GMT Tuesday) on the stage at Hofstra University in New York.
Surrogates have been out in force trying to manage expectations, and preempt public perceptions of their respective candidates, two of the least admired contenders for the White House in contemporary US political history. Clinton, 68, enters the fray as a polished former secretary of state and ex-senator, who after almost 40 years of public service is steeped in the issues.
Trump, a 70-year-old billionaire and former reality TV star, is good on his feet, and unpredictable — more comfortable in the limelight than on issues. The battle of wits, egos and big personalities comes with the November 8 elections just six weeks away and the race in a virtual dead heat.
Moderated by NBC anchor Lester Holt, it will revolve around three themes: “America’s direction, achieving prosperity, and securing America.” The candidates are under immense pressure, with any slip of the tongue holding the potential for disaster.
In a close race, the debaters’ real prize may be the estimated nine percent of voters who have yet to make up their minds.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll on Sunday found Clinton tied with Trump at 41 percent among registered voters.
On Monday, a national poll by Quinnipiac University also found them in a virtual dead heat, with Clinton at 43 percent to Trump’s 42 among likely voters. The poll found that, by a margin of 41 to 32 percent, likely voters expect Clinton to win the debate. And 84 percent said they intend to watch.
Expectations may be higher for Clinton because she is a veteran of 34 primary debates, having run for president in 2008 when she lost to now-President Barack Obama in a long, hard-fought Democratic primary.
“When the spotlights are at the brightest and the pressure is the most intense, that’s when she brings her A-plus game,” her running mate Tim Kaine has said. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, dismisses Clinton’s reputation as a debater, however.
“She’s smart, but this isn’t her sweet spot,” she said Monday on MSNBC, adding that Trump has prepared and is ready for her.
“He’s a natural debater. I have been in politics for 28 years, … and I think Donald Trump has gifts and skills that sometimes escape typical politicians.”
The candidate’s son, Eric Trump, said his father “will be presidential, passionate, and resilient.”
– Unfair to be ‘traffic cop’ –
The Clinton campaign expressed concern Sunday over what it called a double standard, saying the bar has been raised higher for her.
“It’s unfair to ask that Hillary Clinton both play traffic cop with Trump, make sure that his lies are corrected, and also to present her vision for what she wants to do for the American people,” Clinton campaign manager Robbie Mook told broadcaster ABC.
Her team is concerned that moderator Holt will toss simpler “softball” questions in Trump’s direction while pressing Clinton with a much more challenging quizzing.
“All that we’re asking is that if Donald Trump lies, that it’s pointed out,” Mook said. But Trump has already stated that he does not believe Holt’s role as moderator is to police each candidate.
Mind games were also on display as Trump threatened to invite Gennifer Flowers, a former lover of Bill Clinton, to watch the high-stakes battle from a front-row seat. Conway on Sunday said it was meant to show the New York billionaire had ways “to get inside the head of Hillary Clinton” but she told CNN there were no plans to actually invite Flowers.
– Negative opinions –
Both Clinton and Trump go into the debate with high negative ratings, which they hope to alter with their performance. The Washington Post/ABC News poll found that both Clinton and Trump were viewed unfavorably by 57 percent of registered voters. Only 38 percent had a positive impression of Trump, to Clinton’s 39 percent.
While voters find both candidates lacking in honesty overall, Clinton’s ratings were worse, with just 33 percent of voters finding her honest and trustworthy and 66 percent saying she is not.
Trump, on the other hand, suffers from the fact that 53 percent of voters do not believe he is qualified to be president, lacking the temperament and knowledge.
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