WASHINGTON, Wash. — To borrow a favourite phrase from a certain sitting U.S. president, Tuesday's debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden promises to be something the likes of which no one's ever seen.
What that something turns out to be ⏤ like much of 2020 so far ⏤ remains anyone's guess.
"Who knows what we're going to see?" said Mitchell McKinney, a professor of communication at the University of Missouri.
At the very least, it will surely be an "untraditional" affair, said McKinney, who as director of the university's Political Communication Institute has been studying U.S. presidential debates for much of his career.
Unlike many of Trump's detractors, however, McKinney sees method to the madness of someone he considers "a very smart strategic communicator."
In campaigns of yore, the basic underlying premise of a televised debate was to assess the incumbent president's track record to explore whether he deserves four more years in the White House.
"The strategy may very well be to keep the debate from taking up the primary proposition that usually the debates are focused on when an incumbent is seeking re-election," he said.
"The antics, the taunting, the tirades, the conspiracies ⏤ for Joe Biden to have to clean it up, to have to respond, to have to defend, all of that could well keep the discussion off of the last four years."
The debate, co-hosted by Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the Cleveland Clinic, will look a little different than in past years, said Peter Eyre, senior adviser to the Commission on Presidential Debates.
"Because of COVID considerations, there will not be a handshake between the candidates or the moderator at the beginning of the debate," Eyre said.
Rather than opening statements, moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News will begin the proceedings by posing the first question to Trump. A small number of guests will be in the audience, he added.
"Everyone in the debate hall on Tuesday night will be subject to a variety of health safety protocols, including COVID testing."
It's worth recalling Biden's performance in 2012 against vice-presidential challenger Paul Ryan to remember he's no stranger to the debate stage, said Karen Beckwith, the Flora Stone Mather professor in Case Western Reserve's political science department.
"The former vice-president is an accomplished debater," Beckwith said of Biden, who continues to enjoy a comfortable lead in national polls, and a narrower edge in key battleground states.
"Biden also is a bit of a street fighter, and he knows how to handle bullies. Biden was not kind to Paul Ryan during the vice-presidential debate eight years ago, and he's also unlikely to be knocked off his own debate agenda."
On that score, he needn't concern himself with the last four years. The last four days should suffice.
The number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., the highest on the planet, is closing in on 210,000, with the world on the cusp of a second wave. Unemployment is hovering at 8.4 per cent, up from historic lows but with analysts bracing for another downturn.
An explosive New York Times report paints a picture of Trump as a struggling, debt-addled businessman who paid just $750 in taxes in 2016 and 2017, owes $300 million in loans and wrote off more than $70,000 for hair styling during his tenure on "The Apprentice."
On Saturday, despite what reports say was Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dying wish, Trump forged ahead with nominating conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace the iconic Supreme Court progressive, his eyes set on a long-coveted repeal of Obamacare.
"If they win, they will nominate justices who will destroy the American way of life, the American dream. They will destroy the American dream," he said of the Democrats during a news conference Sunday.
"They’ll destroy the United States of America."
The president's own musings about the integrity of the coming vote and apparent unwillingness to permit a peaceful transition should he lose, fuelled by baseless claims of looming mail-in ballot fraud, have experts describing Trump as an existential threat to American democracy.
Paradoxically, that could end up breathing fresh life into the democratic process, said McKinney.
"It may be that that perceived or real threat activates and motivates" voters on both sides of the political spectrum, something that the turnout for early voting suggests is already happening.
"I think this could still go both ways, and it can end up being a toss-up," he said. "Lord only knows what might happen in terms of all of the scenarios that might play out."
In true Trump style, meanwhile, the president doubled down on his pre-emptive excuse in case he is outperformed on Tuesday: his rival, he suggested, is using performance-enhancing drugs.
"I’m not joking. I mean, I’m willing to take a drug test," he said. "You can check out the internet. You’ll see. Plenty of people say it."
He also shrugged off the idea of debate prep, insisting that running the country has been preparation enough for Tuesday night's showdown.
Biden, for his part, has a strategy of his own.
"What do you feel you have to accomplish to be successful on Tuesday?" the former vice-president was asked Sunday during a news conference in Delaware. "What do you have to do to win the debate?"
"Just tell the truth," Biden replied, smiling.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2020.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press