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SAUNDERS: Biden and Trump to debate again — but they’re not the same men

Updated June 21, 2024 - 5:34 pm

WASHINGTON — The first debate between now-President Joe Biden and then-President Donald Trump was held in Cleveland on Sept. 29, 2020. According to a FiveThirtyEight survey, nearly 60 percent of those who watched all or some of that debate rated Biden’s performance as good, while 50 percent rated Trump’s performance as “very poor.”

Biden’s most notable line: “Will you shut up, man?”

On Thursday, when the two rivals face off for the first debate of 2024, they will be different men, and both will approach the podium amid very different expectations.

Biden, 81, has aged since he took the oath of office in January 2021. As November looms, he is more likely to mumble and stumble. Many Americans probably will tune into the debate just to see if Biden chokes.

“If Biden goes out there and messes up, it’s game over.” said left-leaning commentator Van Jones on CNN.

Trump, 78, is not far behind age-wise. Not only has Trump been known to misspeak, he also is known for puerile name-calling and over-interrupting — as he did in 2020. Fortunately for Trump, the Atlanta debate’s rules mandate that candidates’ microphones be muted except when it is a candidate’s turn to speak.

On the downside for Trump, there will not be a live audience to supercharge his performance.

On the downside for Biden, no pre-written notes will be allowed on stage.

Each candidate will be armed only with paper, a pen and a bottle of water.

Expect Biden to hit Trump on his status as a convicted felon, as well as his fueling of the Jan. 6, 2021, mob that poured through the Capitol.

Expect Trump to slam Biden for encouraging millions of migrants to cross over the border, as well as for inflation.

The RealClearPolitics polling average shows that 64 percent of Americans think the country is on the “wrong track.” That can’t be good for Biden.

Independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. got frozen out of the debate. Both the Trump and Biden campaigns negotiated terms with CNN, outside the traditional Commission on Presidential Debates rubric, in a way that ensured that only the president and former president would appear on stage. Call it a victory for the two-party status quo.

Former Biden White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield told CNN that she could envision “a most disciplined version” of Trump showing up.

Smart.

Of late, Trump has taken on a less combative tone. Here’s something I never thought I’d see: Trump endorsed former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who is running for U.S. Senate, even though Hogan pointedly did not endorse Trump.

After a jury found Trump guilty in the New York hush-money trial, Hogan said Trump should “respect the verdict.” Trump 2024 doesn’t even appear miffed. A miracle.

Trump recently shook hands with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — after the two had not spoken since before Jan. 6. Miracle two.

It is as if the maturity and focus some Republicans hoped to see after Trump took the oath of office has taken root during his years in political exile.

In short, Trump has evolved and Biden has declined.

The president is headed to Camp David to prep for the big event. He benefits from low expectations. He has 90 minutes to show America that he still has what it takes. Or not.

Contact Review-Journal Washington Columnist Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com. Follow @debrajsaunders on X.

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