How Donald Trump could play offense – and defense – in first 2024 debate against Joe Biden

WASHINGTON – After spending six weeks sitting in a criminal courtroom, former President Donald Trump gets to play both prosecutor and defense lawyer in another arena: a presidential debate.

Trump and his allies say he plans to use Thursday's showdown to indict President Joe Biden, 81, for his age and handling of issues like inflation and the southern border. But the former president will also have to play defense over GOP debates on abortion rights, his own mental acuity, and his sweeping criminal charges that include his May 30 conviction in his New York City hush money case.

"How should I handle him?" Trump asked supporters during a weekend rally in Philadelphia. "Should I be tough and nasty? ... Or should I be nice and calm and let him speak?"

As the pro-Trump crowd voiced its support for the first option, Trump said, "Be tough ... be tough."

But what approach will the presumptive Republican nominee actually take as he faces off against Biden for the first time since 2020? The current and former presidents will meet Thursday night at the CNN-sponsored debate in Atlanta.

A low bar for Biden?

Poll after poll has shown that Americans are concerned about Biden's age. For months, Trump has tried to take advantage of that, criticizing Biden over his age and mental fitness.

But now, some Trump allies fear he's set the bar too low for the president ahead of Thursday's showdown.

“They need to keep the bar off the floor,” said Sean Spicer, a former White House press secretary for Trump. “At this point the bar is if Biden walks on stage and doesn’t trip he has exceeded expectations.”

Trump has apparently heard the message. In recent days, he and his aides have retooled. They've publicly argued that Biden had strong debate performances in the past, including a 2012 vice presidential debate with then-Republican nominee Paul Ryan.

In an interview on "The All-In Podcast," Trump said: "I think he will be somebody who will be a worthy debater. I don't want to underestimate him."

After all, Trump, 78, is only three years younger than Biden, and he's also had gaffes on the campaign trail. Approximately 59% of Americans think both Trump and Biden are too old to serve another term in office, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll from earlier this year.

However, Trump's still widely expected to press Biden on voters' concerns about his age on Thursday – although Biden's just as likely to challenge Trump over his advanced years, gaffes, and mental acuity.

Biden campaign co-chair Mitch Landrieu, speaking on NBC's "Meet The Press," said it doesn't matter how Trump tries to characterize Biden in Atlanta. It makes no difference "if he comes in unhinged, like he has most of the time, or he sits there and is quiet," Landrieu said.

"People are going to know that he's a twice-impeached convicted felon who has been found to have defamed somebody sexually abused somebody and going bankrupt six times," Landrieu said.

New rules? Who knows?

Even if the former president zeroes in on the current president's age, the Trump who shows up in Atlanta should be more focused and disciplined, allies said.

And he'll need to be because of the debate's rules.

There will be no audience that Trump can play to. He won't be able to roam the stage and stalk Biden from behind, as he did to Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Trump will also have a hard time interrupting Biden, as he frequently did in their 2020 campaign debates. The candidates' microphones will be off when the other is speaking.

Bemoaning the rules before his supporters in Philadelphia, Trump said: "This could be the most boring (debate). ... Or it could be quite exciting. Who knows?"

But Trump allies said he could use the new rule about not interrupting to his advantage. Marc Lotter, who worked on Trump’s campaigns in 2016 and 2020 and now is the chief communications officer for the Trump-aligned America First Policy Institute, said Trump won't be able to take Biden off the hook if the latter is struggling with an answer.

“Because of the debate rules ... I think it plays to Trump's advantage, because he won't be able to throw a life preserver to Joe Biden” by interrupting him, Lotter said, adding: "Joe Biden's got that two minutes without a life raft. It's all on him.”

During the rally in Philadelphia, Trump said he accepted the restrictions because he's eager to get into the same room with Biden – for better or for worse.

"They've taken so much fun out of it," he told the crowd of supporters.

Trump's criminal convictions take center stage

Republicans fully expect Biden to cite an unprecedented feature of this election: Trump is the first major party presidential candidate who has been convicted of a felony.

On May 30, a New York City jury convicted Trump of falsifying business records to hide hush money payments to Stormy Daniels in an effort to prevent voters from learning about his encounter with the adult film star before the 2016 election.

Trump also was found liable for sexual abuse and defamation of writer E. Jean Carroll, and for inflating his property values in order to secure favorable loans. Trump faces more than $500 million in civil judgments, though he has appealed in these cases.

Trump is also set to have three more criminal trials on charges related to allegedly mishandling classified documents and attempting to steal the 2020 election.

As he has on the campaign trail, Trump's expected to use the debate to claim that his indictments and lawsuits are all a politically motivated "scam."

Trump has been making that argument for a year, but it's unclear what kind of effect it has among pivotal independent voters.

Politico Magazine/Ipsos survey conducted June 7-9 found that 21% of independents polled said they are now less inclined to support the former president after his New York trial, and his conviction will be an important factor in how they vote. Still, numerous polls show the overall race virtually tied.

Playing defense on abortion, rhetoric on migrants

Trump's debate defense also is likely to include an array of policy issues, particularly abortion.

Democrats notched victories across the country during the 2022 midterms as they campaigned on abortion access, and Biden is using a similar playbook in 2024.

The former president is expected to argue that states should set their own rules, and Republicans shouldn't embrace national abortion restrictions. In remarks over the weekend to religious supporters who want a federal abortion ban, Trump said that proposal is hurting Republican candidates.

FILE PHOTO: Combination picture showing former U.S. President Donald Trump attending the Trump Organization civil fraud trial, in New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., November 6, 2023 and U.S. President Joe Biden participating in a meeting with Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 1, 2024. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid and Elizabeth Frantz//File Photo

In a pre-debate memo, the Biden campaign noted that Trump appointed three of the Supreme Court justices who decided to overturn Roe v. Wade − and they alleged he "wants to go even further in a second term."

Biden on Thursday will likely embrace that message and accuse Trump of being open to a national abortion ban if he's elected to a second term.

But abortion isn't the only topic Trump expects to be called upon to defend during the debate. Biden's aim could range from Trump's promises of mass deportations of migrants, investigations and prosecutions of political opponents, and pledges to be a "dictator" on "day one" of his second term.

Trump has also discussed pardons for at least some of his supporters involved in the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021.

But regardless of which issues Trump and Biden take on during Thursday's debate − or which strategies they use on stage − the real question comes on Friday: Which pitch are voters buying as they gear up for early voting and Election Day?

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump's age, conviction and how he might handle attacks during debate