The Presidential Debate: What to Look For

JONATHAN MARTIN Monday, September 26, 2016

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Good Monday morning.
The face-off Monday night between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump is, for good reason, among the most highly anticipated presidential debates in American history.
But with a presidential race that once seemed to be tipping in Mrs. Clinton’s favor growing more competitive as early voting begins, the debate at Hofstra University in New York is far more than a made-for-TV moment.
Here is what to look for as the candidates try to motivate — or reassure — supporters and win over a small group of undecided voters:
Can Trump demonstrate he’s fit for the Oval Office?
With a showman’s flair for generating publicity and a firebrand’s talent for touching the rawest of nerves, Mr. Trump has effectively harnessed the angst of many in the country who are not feeling the effects of the economic upswing, have tired of prolonged wars or have grievances about a changing country.
But surveys show that a majority of Americans still believe he is unqualified to be president. If Mr. Trump is to convince those voters who have doubts about his fitness for high office, but are uneasy with Mrs. Clinton, the three debates represent his best opportunity to prove he can be trusted to serve as a head of state.
Can Clinton hide her contempt for her opponent and her disbelief at being locked in such a close race?
It is no stretch to believe that in her internal monologue — and perhaps in intimate conversations — Mrs. Clinton wonders how she could possibly be locked in a competitive contest with a casino executive turned reality TV personality who has never run for office and has no foreign policy experience. But if Mrs. Clinton betrays any such incredulity, she risks bringing what she may think is the unthinkable that much closer to reality.
Whether it is with her body language, her tone or her words, Mrs. Clinton cannot appear contemptuous of the voters for considering the star of “The Apprentice” for the office of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Just as Mr. Trump will undermine his prospects if he hurls insults at Mrs. Clinton, she must mask her contempt for him and persuade, not scold, voters. She needs only to ask Al Gore about how effective eye-rolling and sighing are when contending with an opponent you can barely believe is on the same stage.
Can Trump perform for an extended period of time without a net?
If Mrs. Clinton must guard against condescension, Mr. Trump has to worry about being exposed to a global audience as devoid of all but bluster. During the Republican primary race, he benefited from sharing a stage with numerous rivals, each of whom was eager for the airtime during a season in which Mr. Trump thoroughly dominated television news. Since his campaign’s low point this summer, when he was criticized for frequently taking it off script, Mr. Trump has put aside his mockery of politicians who use teleprompters and read from prepared text at even some of his most informal events.
But Mr. Trump now lacks safety in numbers on the stage. And when he looks into the camera Monday evening, there will be no well-chosen words for him to read. He must summon the stamina to engage fully for 90 minutes and the knowledge to answer to a battery of policy questions from both the moderator, Lester Holt of NBC, and Mrs. Clinton. A long silence, a mistaken guess or an angry dismissal all would serve to reinforce one of his biggest vulnerabilities: that he knows next to nothing about substance.
Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump are seen on the side of a CNN truck parked outside Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

In a campaign that is now a battle over national identity and values, these candidates are more opposed over race and gender than any in decades.

The debate hall at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on the eve of the first round between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton on Monday.

Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

One way to fill the void until Monday has been to speculate whether either presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump or Hillary Clinton, might be motivated to skip the other two scheduled debates.

Al Gore and George W. Bush at the first presidential debate in 2000, moderated by Jim Lehrer.

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

The October 2000 showdown was seen by some as a deciding factor in that presidential race. Our oral history reveals lessons for the 2016 Democratic nominee.

The 1976 Democratic presidential nominee, Jimmy Carter, left, and President Gerald Ford, during their second debate in October of that year.

Teresa Zabala/The New York Times

News outlets and fact-checking sites can separate truth from fable after a debate, but it falls to the moderator to interject in the moment when a candidate lies.

Preparations for the presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump were being made on Sunday to the debate hall at Hofstra University.

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Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump face off on Monday in the first debate of the 2016 general election campaign. Here are the details.

On the Trail

While their running mates are focused on the debate, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia will hold events in Florida, and Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana will hold a rally in New Hampshire.
Michelle Obama hugged George W. Bush on Saturday at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

For Some, Bush-Obama Rapport Recalls a Lost Virtue: Political Civility


The Bush and Obama families have a deep bond, thanks to the shared experience of life in the White House and George W. Bush’s decorum as an ex-president.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. last year at New York University.

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David Kelly, center, and other cast members of Berkeley Repertory Theater’s “It Can’t Happen Here” rehearsing earlier this month.

A Play Timed to Trump’s Candidacy Asks What If


Mirroring similar theatrical efforts, Berkeley Rep stages an adaptation of a Sinclair Lewis novel about a vain nominee inveighing against a religious minority.

In Case You Missed It

Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, in Houston on Sept. 17, where he said “almost, it seems, everybody agrees” with his position on immigration, but most Americans do not.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Mr. Trump has unleashed a blizzard of falsehoods, exaggerations and outright lies in the general election. Here’s our analysis of 31 untruths from Sept. 15-21.

Hillary Clinton and Lloyd C. Blankfein, chairman and chief executive of Goldman Sachs, at a Clinton Global Initiative meeting in 2014 in New York.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

One of the country’s most powerful financial firms and one of its most famous political families have a long-running and mutually beneficial relationship.

Editorial Endorsements

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Our endorsement is rooted in respect for her intellect, experience and courage.

Eric Thayer for The New York Times

Donald Trump is a man who dwells in bigotry, bluster and false promises.

Our Other Favorites

The debate hall at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on the eve of the first round between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton on Monday.

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Rail cars containing coal in Williamson, W.Va. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan would close hundreds of coal-fired power plants, but faces a challenge in the courts this week.

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Alex Caicedo and his family are among the 3.5 million Americans who breached the poverty line last year, according to new census data.

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In 2015, 3.5 million Americans were able to breach the poverty line as an economic recovery hit a tipping point.

What We’re Reading Elsewhere

The Los Angeles Times looks at how each candidate has responded to calls for Mr. Holt, the moderator of Monday’s debate, to do some live fact-checking during the exchanges.
Politico recalls the “eight biggest unforced errors in debate history.”
WFMY News, a CBS affiliate in Greensboro, N.C., details how last week a civil rights museum there denied a Trump campaign request to make arrangements to close so the candidate could visit.