Trump needs a campaign reset. This debate could be it. | Opinion

The CNN debate next Thursday is perfect timing for Donald Trump. Until now, the Trump campaign has been defined by criminal trials, convictions and judgments. Although he continues to generate large crowds at rallies, Trump has done very little to persuade swing voters.

Trump needs a campaign reset — a chance to redefine the race as something other than grievance politics and base issues. The head-to-head debate is Trump’s first opportunity to speak with voters who normally tune him out. He can make a compelling case that he is the better choice to be president. It’s also his opportunity to expose Joe Biden as a commander in chief whose health is failing mentally and physically.

Matt Wylie
Matt Wylie

Perhaps that’s why Trump eagerly agreed to a debate whose format — no live audience and mics muted when it’s not the candidate’s turn — so obviously favored Biden.

The problem for Trump is that he is not a good debater. He is a brilliant marketer and pitch man, but he has never been able to make a concise persuasive argument on issues, policy or vision. Instead, his impulse is to attack. Trump’s strength on the debate stage has been the power of his personality. While his candidness and directness make him appealing to the base, it does little to persuade voters in swing states.

At first glance, Biden’s attempt to reduce the number of debates might seem like a lack of confidence in his ability to defend his record during prime-time. But let’s not pretend the Democrats are making foolish campaign moves — they are well aware of the risks associated with debating Trump and could have chosen to avoid debates altogether. While this would have undoubtedly sparked outrage from the right and raised more questions about Biden’s mental fitness, it likely would have had minimal impact overall. After all, Trump skipped every Republican presidential debate this year and still won the GOP primary effortlessly.

The Democrats are making calculated moves, setting traps and hoping Trump takes the bait.

It’s not a coincidence that Biden announced his executive action providing amnesty for some undocumented immigrants the week leading up to the debate. It’s also no coincidence that Biden recently started running TV ads calling Trump a “convicted felon.”

Both of these issues will be like catnip for Trump — designed to elicit the nonstop character attacks followed by grievances politics and wild accusations that have become the hallmark of Trump speeches. When CNN tries to fact-check him in real time, Trump’s impulse will be to attack the moderators, the establishment and “fake news.” Biden’s goal is simple: Let Trump be Trump and further drive a wedge between him and the suburban women Trump needs to win the election.

To be successful, Trump must resist the temptation to always be on the attack and instead stay focused on issues such as the economy, cost of living, crime and immigration.

Truth is, nothing really changes for the Trump campaign if he doesn’t perform well. Trump will cite the network, the moderators, the rules as the reason. He’ll declare victory and the debate will be nothing more than a missed opportunity.

For Biden, the stakes are higher. He needs a strong performance. Verbal gaffes have defined his 50 years in politics and this campaign marks his fourth and final presidential run. A recent Wall Street Journal report suggested Biden is showing signs of decline and some political observers say concerns about his age and mental fitness are growing even among Democratic lawmakers and aides. His image has suffered to the point that a recent JL Partners poll reported in the N.Y. Post showed 49% of those polled expect him to forget where he is during the debate and more than a third expect him to walk off the wrong side of the stage.

Debates are about managing expectations and right now the bar is set very low. Biden needs to reassure voters he is fit for the job. While an average debate performance could help rally Democrats behind him, a significant misstep would fuel further discussions about replacing him.

Matt Wylie is a S.C. based Republican political strategist and analyst with over 25 years of experience working on federal, state and local campaigns.