Republicans urge Trump to avoid 2020 debate pitfalls: ‘Don’t take the bait’

Senate Republicans are urging former President Trump to avoid a repeat of his much-maligned debate performance against President Biden four years ago when the two meet onstage Thursday for a pivotal moment in their rematch.

Trump’s 2020 debate performance is remembered for interruptions, badgering and running roughshod over Biden and debate moderator Chris Wallace — as well as his infamous response that the Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by.”

Now, Republicans are urging him to tone it down in the name of presidential success.

“Don’t take the bait,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican who is running to become leader next year. “Demeanor’s important, tone’s important. I think you can be decisive and strong, as he is, but I think in many ways you want to give President Biden as much rope as possible because I don’t think that probably is going to play well for him.”

“This is why you play them, right? The debates are going to be important as they always are,” he continued. “If [Trump] comes in there and just shows strength and leadership but maintains a calm demeanor and lets Biden go, it goes well for him.”

This week’s debate, which is scheduled ahead of both national conventions for the first time since the advent of televised debates in 1960, is set to become one of the first major moments of the general election battle.

It could be a turning point in the race, in which Biden has struggled to put Trump away in battleground state polls.

But as failed candidates of the past can attest, a campaign can change with one bad night — just as Trump’s did four years ago. Republicans are hopeful the shoe will be on the other foot this go-around.

“The main focus is going to be: is Biden capable?” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a top Trump ally in the upper chamber.

“If I were President Trump, I would talk about right track, wrong track,” he continued. “I don’t think he needs to be overly-aggressive. Just make the case that if you think we’re on the wrong track, you’re right.”

Trump immediately agreed to Thursday’s debate at CNN studios in Atlanta after saying for months he wanted as many debates as possible against Biden. His campaign has spent weeks lowering expectations around Biden’s performance, portraying the president as weak, ailing and mentally incompetent.

But Trump’s team is also preparing for the possibility that Biden exceeds expectations, laying the foundation to dismiss the performance as a charade — just as it did after Biden’s State of the Union address in early March.

Biden’s team also jumped at the chance to debate next week as they hope to raise the stakes of this election and put the race on the map for some voters who still haven’t turned their attention to the political season.

“I think they’re going to be looking for other cues in terms of: is President Biden answer capable of answering all the questions relevantly, and is President Trump within the rails?” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said. “Who knows? That’s why I think [the debate] presents all sorts of questions.”

Biden departed for Camp David on Thursday to take part in days of extensive debate prep — a process Trump has eschewed since he launched his 2016 presidential campaign.

The importance of Thursday, however, is not lost among Trump supporters who are well aware of what happened four years ago. Not only was Trump uber-aggressive and barely allowed Biden to get a word in edgewise, but he was also visibly sweating, a fact that was compounded days later when he tested positive for COVID-19.

Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio), who is reportedly on Trump’s shortlist to become his running mate, acknowledged the stakes but maintained confidence that the former president will see a favorable outcome.

“I think it’s going to be a good night, but it’s a very important night,” Vance said. “He just has to make his case to the American people. There’s a very clear contrast between how things were under him and how things were under Biden. He just, I think, has to hit that theme and that’s what we’ll do.”

Other Trump supporters are bullish that he will flip the script from 2020.

“Trump’s going to kick his a‑‑,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said. “You can quote me on that.”

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