Biden and Trump inch closer to debate stage

After a full court press from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and its allies, he and Joe Biden may be one step closer to meeting on the debate stage ahead of voters deciding who will hold the Oval Office next year.

Biden on Friday offered his most robust commitment to the general election debates, telling Howard Stern in a wide ranging interview that he would be “happy to” debate Trump.

“I am – somewhere. I don’t know when, I’m happy to debate him,” the president said.

In response, on Truth Social, Trump shot back, “Everyone knows he doesn’t really mean it, but in case he does, I say, ANYWHERE, ANYTIME, ANYPLACE, an old expression used by Fighters.”

The back-and-forth comes after weeks of Republicans raising the volume in their calls for debates to happen.

The calls have come in press releases, campaign memos, talking points to Republican surrogates and during interviews with allies. The core argument is simple: Trump wants to debate, and Biden owes it to the American people to stand on stage with him as soon as possible.

“Will Joe Biden Debate? That’s an issue that isn’t going away. Donald Trump makes it clear whenever he is on stage that he will debate Joe Biden anytime, anywhere, and anyplace,” read a line from a Thursday public memo issued by Trump co-campaign managers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita.

A day earlier, Kellyanne Conway, a Trump campaign manager in 2016, made a point of saying that Vice President Kamala Harris should absolutely debate whoever Trump picks as his running mate as soon as an announcement is made.

And in talking points surrogates received earlier this month that were obtained by CNN, the Republican National Committee encouraged supporters to say that “President Trump is ready to debate anytime, anyplace, and anywhere” and that “Americans deserve a full chance to see both candidates on the same stage before they start voting. Earlier this month, the Trump campaign sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates arguing that the debates should happen earlier. The campaign has not gotten a response yet. A dozen news organizations, including CNN, also released a public letter earlier this month urging Trump and Biden to participate in televised debates.

The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced last year that the events were scheduled to begin in mid-September. But the campaign cycle hasn’t reached the point where the commission can assess where candidates are polling and which are on the ballot to decide who can be on stage.

Trump and his team see calling for the debates as a ripe argument to make at this point, even as Republicans are looking to hammer the president on immigration and the economy while the former president spends most of his days in court.

Trump’s team is eager to get the former President on the debate stage as early as possible for a number of reasons, a source familiar with the discussions told CNN. Earlier this month, the campaign asked the Commission on Presidential Debates for this year’s general election debates to take place “much earlier.” The source cited that debates were scheduled to occur after early voting started in some areas, and they want Trump to be able to reach voters before they make a decision.

Part of the strategy is to force Biden’s team to make a decision on debates early. Trump’s team sees no downside.

“[Biden’s campaign] will either have to debate, and we do not think he can keep up with Trump, or explain to the American people why they’re hiding from Donald Trump,” the source said.

Trump’s team expressed confidence that the former President can excel on the debate stage.

“They may have gagged Donald Trump in the courtroom, but they’re not going to be able to gag him on the debate stage,” Trump’s co-campaign manager Chris LaCivita said.

Trump’s record on attending debates is mixed. He eagerly attended almost all of the Republican primary debates and all of the general election debates in 2016. In 2020, the former president skipped the second general election debate after the Commission on Presidential Debates said it would be virtual amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The former president skipped all of the Republican primary debates this cycle. But now the Trump campaign is pushing back on the notion that because Trump didn’t show up for those primary debates, Biden would not have to show up in the fall.

“It’s comparing apples to oranges,” one senior adviser said.

Calling for earlier debates might also help weed out third party candidates that could cause problems for both Trump and Biden. Candidates need to meet certain criteria concerning ballot access, polling, and constitutional eligibility to qualify for general election debates. Trump and Biden are all but certain to qualify for the general election debates but it’s unclear if third party candidates like Cornel West or Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will meet the requirements to qualify. The Commission on Presidential Debates won’t determine who is eligible to participate in the debates until after Labor Day.

The source insisted that Trump would debate with or without a third party candidate on the stage.

The Biden position

The Biden campaign isn’t in a rush to commit to any specific date or format for the general election debates, a source familiar with their thinking says.

Biden’s team has watched Trump’s recent enthusiasm for the debate with some skepticism.

About two years ago, the Republican National Committee voted unanimously to withdraw from its participation in the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, the organization governing general-election presidential debates, citing bias. That withdrawal followed months of then-chairwoman Ronna McDaniel pressing the commission to change various practices on behalf of Trump. At one point, McDaniel threatened to “prohibit future Republican nominees from participating in CPD-sponsored debates.” (She was ousted from her job earlier this year.)

But as both Biden and Trump secured enough delegates to win their respective parties’ nominations, Trump renewed calls for debates, first the day before Biden’s State of the Union address and again earlier this month. It’s not clear to the Biden campaign what, if anything, changed since the Republican Party pulled out of the commission.

The source said the campaign does not view debates as a deciding factor in elections, but as just one piece of the overall work it is doing to get its message to voters, along with building its organization, opening offices and paid media, among other efforts, the source said. The Biden campaign has maintained a split-screen strategy in recent weeks, working to show the president governing and campaigning in battleground states while Trump has spent much of his time in a courtroom.

Biden had previously conditioned debates with his predecessor, telling reporters last month, “It depends on his behavior,” but declining to elaborate further.

“If I were him I’d want to debate me too. He’s got nothing else to do,” he said in February.

The Biden campaign views its 2020 debate experience with Trump as one that was ultimately positive for then-candidate Biden.

Why debate?

Strategists and operatives who have advised statewide and presidential candidates on debating say debates still matter even as viewership of those debates has fluctuated over the years. Still, the value of having those debates extends beyond whether voters tune in to see the candidates side by side in real time.

“I think they’re important in this election because folks have a belief of what they think of what Donald Trump would do and what he did as president but they should hear that on stage in comparison to Joe Biden’s record and get a chance to compare those things head to head,” said Brett O’Donnell, the veteran Republican debate coach who has prepped Sen. Mitt Romney and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for presidential debates.

But there is also an incentive for Biden and Trump to refrain from debating this time around, said Mari Will, another longtime Republican debate coach.

“If I were advising either one of them I would say ‘why?’…I would say ‘why debate?’ I mean I know it’s good for the country for the voters to be involved, but I think they’re already pretty involved,” Will said. “I think most people have already pretty much made up their minds. There’s only a narrow band of persuadable. And most of those lean already and are probably going to come home before the election. So that just leaves risk.”

The risk, Will continued, is for a candidate to slip up in some way or perform poorly, essentially encouraging a negative perception and that perception dominating the media cycle for a time.

“Mostly, from my perspective, it’s not about the people watching; it’s about the media narrative that goes on for two or three days after. And then sometimes you can make ads after that,” Will said. “I tell candidates mostly it’s about the narrative. You bring up something that media people can’t help but write down.”

But skipping all debates would break with a tradition of general election candidates debating before the election going back decades. The first general election televised debate was in 1960. There was a gap that lasted until 1976 and since then the nominees of the two opposing parties and occasionally a third party candidate have participated in general election debates.

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