It will be the ultimate political cage fight with an audience to match. Pundits predict that as many as 100 million Americans – a viewership of Super Bowl-sized proportions – will tune in for the first US TV presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump tonight (Tuesday 2am Irish time).
For 90 minutes at Hofstra University in the New York City suburb of Hempstead, the lawyerly policy wonk and the unpredictable reality-TV star will face off on a stage in a debate hosted by the NBC News anchor Lester Holt. In that time, the public will for the first time have an opportunity to see both candidates side by side and consider one simple question: who is the most presidential?
Both candidates are deeply unpopular and divisive; most voters do not trust Clinton and most do not believe Trump has the right temperament to be president. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, published yesterday, shows a virtual dead heat, so this first moment to compare the two will be critical. As many as 15 to 20 per cent of voters, it has been estimated, still have not decided who to vote for.
"Given the dynamics of this election, whoever wins this debate will likely win the election – the stakes are huge," said Mark McKinnon, a political media strategist to former president George W Bush. McKinnon helped prepare the then Texas governor for his first presidential debate against Al Gore in 2000.
He recalled to The Irish Times that the final preparation before Bush’s first debate in that campaign did not go well. The candidate and his aides arranged a final dress-rehearsal in a church near his Texas ranch at night at the same time as the debate.
Bush, an obsessive about punctuality, arrived on time but his aides were late. He was furious and did not want to be there. The night was a disaster.
“This is like the last prep for the biggest night of his life and it was just a train wreck,” McKinnon said. “We all left thinking we are going to get killed. Fortunately, he rose to the occasion and it was determinative. I am 100 per cent sure that in that election, that debate made all the difference in the world.”
This time around, the debate preparation largely matches how the candidates have run their campaigns.
For months, the ever-studious Clinton has painstakingly swotted over a large dossier on Trump and met with her debate team. Trump, in contrast, has eschewed convention, discarding detailed briefing materials in favour of watching Clinton’s past debates for signs of weakness.
Knowing how Trump reacted to goading in the pantomime-like Republican primary debates, Clinton is expected to try provoking the businessman early in the debate in an effort to spark his short-fuse petulance and show him to be temperamentally unfit for the Oval Office – her main campaign strategy against him.
For his part, Trump must fight his natural tendency to rely on the insult, which worked well in the Republican debates but in a one-on-one setting would quickly be overbearing. The expectation bar is lower for Trump but the risk of losing his cool is higher.
“Debates are all about expectations,” said McKinnon, “and the expectations for Trump couldn’t be lower. So all he has to do is get on that stage for 90 minutes, keep his composure, look presidential and at least have some command of basic facts. If he does all that, it will probably be advantage Trump.”
Clinton’s challenge is tougher: she must disqualify Trump and prosecute him.
“The question is, can she get under his skin and make him react?” McKinnon said. “Obviously he is going to be coached not to do that. But 90 minutes is a long time and he doesn’t like to be bested. The question is, can he remain on the chain or does he come off the chain?”
Lanhee Chen, policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, helped the Republican prepare for his first debate against
, an encounter Romney won. Chen said Trump had an uneven debate season in the primary and needs to approach this first general election debate with far more rigour, demonstrating an even temperament and a much stronger grasp on policy than he shown before.
“I think Trump is going to come out cool, not amped up,” he said. “I think she is going to come out a little more aggressively to try to knock him off of his base a little bit.”
As a fitness test, this debate will come down to an exercise in provocation and how to resist it, said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “My guess is that her people are telling her: the most important thing for you is to be cool, calm and collected and let Trump be Trump.
“They will tell her: even if he tries hard to be disciplined, he will start bouncing off the walls at some point, and the best thing for you is to provide a contrast to that: you can trust me as commander in chief, not that guy who is bouncing off the walls.”
Bannon expects an early personal attack from Trump in an effort to rattle Clinton. The predebate antics of the past 48 hours suggest a potential line of attack.
Gennifer Flowers, who had a sexual relationship with Bill Clinton, has said she will accept an invitation to attend the debate as Trump's guest. The businessman floated the idea of inviting her in a tweet responding to billionaire mogul and rival television celebrity Mark Cuban.
Cuban had tweeted that he had a front- row seat to watch Clinton “overwhelm” Trump at the “Humbling at Hofstra”.
Cuban has repeatedly taunted Trump throughout the campaign, criticising him for not releasing his tax returns and challenging him to a one-on-one interview.
The businessman, who owns the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team, has as brash a TV persona as Trump, and his attacks have been effective in winding up the Republican nominee.
Indiana governor Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, later rubbished the suggestion that Flowers would attend and had a dig at Clinton for inviting Cuban.
“Hillary Clinton apparently thinks this is an episode of Shark Tank, but this is America,” Pence told a Fox News Sunday talk show, referring to Cuban’s TV programme, similar to Dragons’ Den.
“It’s serious business,” the VP candidate added.
Given this potential for low blows, all eyes will be on the free-swinging Trump tonight, the seasoned TV performer in the biggest appearance of his career. His asymmetric boxing style, as former Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod put it, will make this a must-watch contest.
“People want to just tune in to see what he is going to do and how Hillary Clinton is going to react to it,” said McKinnon. “There is a curiosity and entertainment value that people just want to see what is going to happen.”