WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — With just 35 days until the election, President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden are barreling into their crucial first debate Tuesday night, the most pivotal moment so far in a race that has remained stubbornly unchanged in the face of historic tumult.
Both men huddled with aides in the final hours before the debate, which will offer the candidates their biggest national stage to outline starkly different visions for a country facing multiple crises. Americans are both fearful and impatient about the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs, and many are concerned about racial justice, protest violence or both.
Each side hoped the debate would energize its own base of supporters even as the candidates compete over the slim slice of undecided voters who could decide the election.
Biden released his 2019 tax returns just days after the blockbuster revelations about Trump’s long-hidden tax history, including that he paid only $750 a year in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and nothing in many other years. The Bidens paid nearly $300,000 in taxes in 2019.
Meanwhile, trying to hammer home a claim that Biden is not up to the job of president, Trump’s campaign pushed out a number of pre-debate accusations, including that the former vice president asked for numerous breaks during the 90-minute debate and had backed out of a search meant to rule out that either man was wearing an earpiece from which he could be fed answers.
The Biden campaign denied the accusations and, in a conference call Tuesday afternoon, chided reporters for biting on a Trump gambit.
“We’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” Biden senior campaign adviser Symone Sanders said. “Is this what you all would really like to spend your time on, these false, crazy, random, ridiculous assertions by the Trump campaign?”
“His staff seems concerned that he may not do well tonight and they’re already laying the groundwork for how they’re going to lie about why,” said Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield. “It is completely absurd. Of course, he’s not wearing an earpiece.”
The statement comes as rumors were shared on social media and the president’s campaign asked that a third party be allowed “to inspect the ears of each debater for electronic devices or transmitters.”
So how did the idea of Biden and a secret earpiece get started? The team at Snopes, a popular fact-checking website, says this is the same conspiracy theory that targeted Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The 2020 version of the rumor details that Biden would be wearing the earpiece to receive answers from his team. There are similar social media rumors saying the former vice president would be utilizing a hidden teleprompter to read scripted lines.
As you might imagine, there’s no evidence to support these claims.
Similar theories started in 2016 when a photo surfaced Hillary Clinton wearing what some believed to be a secret earpiece during an interview. Based on other photos taken during the interview, it appears the “earpiece” was simply a light reflection.
Nevertheless, the rumor mill began swirling and had to be debunked by the Snopes team.
Similar to the Biden rumors circulating today, there was also a theory pushed around that Clinton had a teleprompter installed in a debate podium. There was no evidence to support that.
Snopes called the latest rumors of an earpiece, “recycled and baseless smear aimed at undermining a presidential candidate.”
The president’s handling of the coronavirus was likely to dominate much of the debate. The pandemic’s effects were in plain sight, with the candidates’ lecterns spaced far apart, all of the guests in the small crowd tested and the traditional opening handshake scrapped.
The scene in Cleveland was notably understated compared to typical election years, with none of the pomp and pageantry. Instead of the usual auditorium, the debate is being held in an atrium on Case Western University’s campus and signs were placed on two of every three three chairs reading, “Thank you for not sitting here in observance of social distancing.”
And Biden’s selected guests gave clues that he wanted to focus on the virus, inviting small business owners dealing with the struggling economy and Kristin Urquiza, who spoke powerfully at the Democratic convention about her father’s death to COVID-19. Trump, meanwhile, was inviting Giuliani and UFC fighter Colby Covington.
The debate was also shaped by an extraordinary confluence of other recent events, including the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which allowed Trump to nominate a conservative jurist to replace a liberal voice and perhaps reshape the high court for generations.
The tumult of 2020 was difficult to overstate: COVID-19 has rewritten the rules of everyday life, schools and businesses are shuttered and racial justice protests have swept into cities afterseveral highly publicized killings of Black people by police.
But the impact of the debate — or the two to follow — remained unclear in an election year like no other. Despite the upheaval, the presidential race has seemed largely unchanged since Biden seized control of the Democratic field in March.
While both sides anticipated a vicious debate between two men who do not like each other, the Biden campaign downplayed the night’s importance, believing that the pandemic and the battered economy would outweigh any one-night gaffe or zinger. Conversely, the Trump campaign played up the magnitude of the duel, believing it a moment for the president to damage Biden and recast the race.
That continued a curious round of expectations setting: While Trump’s campaign has of late praised Biden’s debate skills, the president has also vividly portrayed his opponent as not being up to the job, potentially allowing Biden to come off well as long as he avoids a major stumble.
“Historically, incumbents do less well in the first debate, largely because they’re unaccustomed to being challenged openly,” said presidential historian Jon Meacham. “The most important single debate in terms of direct impact on outcome came 40 years ago, with the single Carter-Reagan meeting a week before the election. The key question then — ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ — has fresh and compelling resonance.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.