(CNN)Both sides are claiming victory after the last presidential debate but their spin will soon cede to the final 11-day battle between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden to decide the political destiny of a sickened and divided nation.
After the sound of fury of a years-long campaign upended by a crisis that would have seemed unfathomable when it all started, all that matters now is the handful of states that will provide one candidate with the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.
Trump’s supporters will hope by conquering his tendency to self-sabotage on stage on Thursday night, the President will behave with more discipline. He is still searching for the momentum needed to unleash his promised hidden hordes of new voters and confound dire polls with one of the great comebacks in presidential campaign history. Or at least that he can get close enough to make his warning of a contested election he has already falsely derided as “unfair” a feasible possibility.
But Biden is sitting on a massive cash advantage, leads a race that has defied sharp turns even amid extreme circumstances. For months, Biden has made a case to a large chunk of voters that Trump’s botched handling of the pandemic should disqualify him from a second term. Democrats with dark memories of 2016 may panic if there is a tightening of the polls in the coming days. But the former vice president has more paths to the White House than Trump — whose path must run through Pennsylvania and Florida while he plays defense in multiple states he won four years ago.
Debates often turn out to be less important in shaping the final days of a race than they appear in their immediate aftermath. That may be especially the case this time with 50 million early votes already cast — more than one-third of the total vote in 2016. And one tempered performance by the President can’t erase the memory of four years of chaos, rage and scandal.
But Trump did finally give his supporters in the institutional Republican Party reason for hope — with a less bellicose display than his first debate meltdown which might have given some wavering voters pause.
“Finally,” a top Republican adviser told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, when asked to assess the President’s improved performance. “Is it too late? It could be,” another adviser said.
But Trump’s team believes he drew blood from Biden on the former vice president’s vow to eventually transition away from a fossil fuel economy and over his son Hunter Biden’s business activities. There is a belief among pro-Trump analysts that the pollsters and the pundits who they say have never understood Trump’s appeal are misreading his connection with heartland America yet again. But will an election taking place amid a health emergency that caused 2,000 new deaths in the last two days alone and has now claimed 223,000 Americans take a late twist on the issue of fracking and a supposed scandal understandable only to the most devoted conservative media viewers?
Biden’s camp is relieved. The former vice president emerged from two showdowns with the most feral political debater in modern political history intact. He framed the choice before Americans as a question of character and temperament — and told them he would restore “decency,” “honor” and “dignity” he says have been missing from the Oval Office for the last four years. As former President Barack Obama put it earlier this week, a Biden presidency would just be less “exhausting” — a compelling closing argument in itself.
While Trump plans a traditional frantic rush through battle ground states with big rallies — with his rejection that they could creating super spreader events an emblem of his pandemic denial — Biden is likely to stick to his smaller, socially distanced affairs and rely on his big cash edge to blanket TV with ads.
Thanks to Trump’s tempered performance and some authoritative moderating by NBC’s Kristen Welker in the debate in Nashville, Tennessee, Thursday, Americans did get to hear more of the contrast between the President and his challenger on character, values and policies on immigration, climate change, racial healing, the economy and criminal justice to inform their choice in a fateful election.
Trump might have modulated his outbursts, but he didn’t turn down the gusher of untruths — especially when he denied a “dark winter” was looming as the pandemic worsens. His most effective attack on Biden reprised his role as an anti-Washington outsider in which he has always been most comfortable.
“You had eight years to get it done. Now you’re saying you’re going to get it done, because you’re all talk and no action, Joe,” Trump said in a number of variations, pinning the two-term former vice president as a lifelong politician. His assault on Biden’s Senate record on 1990s criminal justice bills seemed designed to help him on the margins with Black male voters in swing states.
But the lesson of Trump’s presidency is that momentary discipline can be purged in subsequent days by raging performances and controversies that derail his own political aspirations.
It is also hard to see how Trump’s callous dismissal of the more than 500 undocumented immigrant kids, separated at the border from parents whom the administration cannot find, helped the President’s already sinking support among crucial suburban women voters.
“They are so well taken care of, they’re in facilities that were so clean,” Trump said, leaving a gaping opening for Biden, who frequently compares his own humanity to the President’s callousness, to deliver a well-rehearsed line.
“Kids were ripped from their arms and separated. And now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents, and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal. It’s criminal,” Biden fumed.
Biden dodges Trump’s trap
The President’s hard line on immigration reflected the way he has always behaved in office — as though he’s running in a Republican primary. It was the same with his allegations of huge corruption against Biden and his son over alleged business dealings in Ukraine and China.
Moaning about the “laptop from Hell” and asking Biden to “clean it up and talk to the American people” might have been understandable to Fox News viewers primed on the latest conspiracy theory but probably baffled everyone else. And Trump’s gambit only opened the door for Biden to hammer him over his refusal to release his tax returns and to raise questions about the President’s own business conflicts.
“What are you hiding? Why are you unwilling? … What’s going on here?” Biden asked Trump.
The exchange underscored two things. First, that Biden did not fall into Trump’s trap by losing his cool when his son was attacked in a way that could have distracted from his glide path to Election Day. It also emphasized how the President’s attempt to saddle his foe with an email scandal in the dying days of the race is not having the same resonance as it did at the end of his duel with Hillary Clinton — whose 40 years of combat with the conservative media machine left her reputation for honesty and trustworthiness worse off than Biden’s.
The former vice president also appeared to improve upon his performance from the first debate. Most importantly for Democrats, he did not look anything like the caricature that the Trump campaign has spent months building. Biden actually could string words together and was sharp and not doddering. He largely conquered his recovering senator habit of waffling. He has had a lucky campaign in that the pandemic shielded him from scrutiny and Trump’s attacks for months. But when he has needed to in marquee events, he has beaten previous expectations for his political skills.
‘Abraham Lincoln here’
Like Trump, Biden avoided the shouting and personal insults that tarnished the first debate. But he was quick to scorn the President when he had an opening, for instance when Trump — who has constantly exacerbated racial divisions — declared that he was the “least racist person in the room.”
“Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we have had in American history,” Biden replied. “He pours fuel on every single racist fire.”
Biden’s canned lines featured much newer material than the President, whose ubiquity means that everyone has heard it all before. But the Democrat’s quips reflected the benefit of practicing for a debate even while Trump’s campaign mocked him for doing so, and the President, as always, took pride in winging it.
Biden had his own collisions with fact. He, for instance, fudged the President’s position on the payroll tax. He falsely denied Trump’s accusations that he had in the past opposed fracking — even though he is not currently proposing a full ban on the practice. But his comparative fealty to the truth suggests that a Biden presidency would not be built on the same mountain of misinformation as Trump’s.
The President’s team believes Biden gave them an opening to restore his standing in crucial Midwest battlegrounds and elsewhere when he said that he favored a transition away from a fossil fuel economy in order to fight the climate crisis.
“What he’s saying is he is going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that Texas, will you remember that Pennsylvania, Oklahoma …” Trump said, although his own musings on Democrats planning buildings with smaller windows and how “wind power kills all the birds” underscored the banality of his own climate policy.
The last words of the debate encapsulated the temperamental and political differences between the two men — one of whom will be sworn into office for a four-year term on January 20, 2021.
Trump’s appeal showed how the billionaire and former business tycoon tends to see everything through an economic prism.
“We are on the road to success. … He will kill it. If he gets in you will have a depression the likes of which you’ve never seen,” Trump said. “Your 401Ks will go to Hell and it’ll be a very, very sad day for this country.”
Biden framed the choice as fundamental to America’s soul.
“What is on the ballot here is the character of this country. Decency, honor, respect, treating people with dignity, making sure that everyone has an even chance, and I’m going to make sure you get that. You haven’t been getting it the last four years.”