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The only thing that’s certain about the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on Monday night is that a lot of people will be watching—perhaps more than any debate since 1980.
Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.
Rarely if ever in the modern era has a general-election debate featured such a stark contrast in candidates. The first woman to win a major party nomination is facing a celebrity businessman who, if elected, would be the first person to assume the presidency without having previously held elective office in 64 years.
The two contenders are diametrically opposed in just about every way, from their visions of the country, to the policies they propose, to the way they comport themselves on stage. Trump is the improviser, a charismatic salesman whose penchant for jokes, insults, and bluster served him surprisingly well in the Republican primaries. Clinton is the epitome of practiced caution, a candidate with a well-known comfort for policy and preparation who rarely deviates from her script.
Yet for all their differences, the main wildcard when they meet at Hofstra University on Monday night will be Trump. Which one will show up?
Trump Goes ‘Presidential’
Trump’s biggest advantage heading into the debates is the low expectations that the media, and many voters, have for his performance. Though Americans dislike both candidates, polls show that a majority view Trump as unserious and unqualified for the presidency. At 9 p.m. on Monday night, he has 90 minutes to show them otherwise.
For all of her shortcomings as a politician, Clinton has been a solid if unspectacular debater in each of the campaigns she’s run, including in the many primary match-ups with Bernie Sanders. She’s consistently well-prepared on policy, stays on message, and knows how to throw a punch. And as her first vanquished opponent, Rick Lazio, can attest, Clinton always seems to benefit when Republicans overreach in their attacks on her, engendering sympathy even from voters not favorably disposed toward her.
Her allies believe that if the debate pits a sober and substantive Clinton against an erratic, aggressive, mean-spirited Trump, she’ll all but clinch a victory she’s already favored to win.
Which is why the biggest curveball Trump might throw at Clinton is one entirely devoid of his famous shtick. Until recently, Trump had enjoyed relative success by displaying more discipline, hewing closer to his core message of economic populism, and focusing his attacks on Clinton’s main vulnerabilities—the perception that she is secretive and dishonest. Moreover, Trump’s newly-installed campaign team has consciously tried to present him as “presidential” to attract wavering voters who want change but are unsure if he is steady enough for the job.
The debate Monday is Trump’s best—and one of his last—opportunities to change the well-ingrained perception that he is unfit for the Oval Office. Clinton is the quasi-incumbent in this race, and Trump has to chance, for the first time, to appear on-stage as her equal.
What if, instead of hurling insults at “Crooked Hillary,” loudly complaining to Lester Holt like an NBA coach works the refs, and denigrating racial and ethnic minorities, Trump keeps calm and delivers the message about jobs, national security, and reversing American decline that has clearly been resonating with voters across the country? Nothing succeeds like a well-executed surprise, and that Donald Trump might appeal to suburban, college-educated women who have deserted him so far and who are crucial to his chances for a comeback.
Trump Goes Hard on Clinton Scandals
Trump is going to play nice? Please.
The biggest argument against “presidential” Donald Trump showing up at Hofstra is that the real Donald Trump hates that version of Donald Trump. As the candidate himself has made clear time and again, he does not like to be handled, reined in, toned down. Trump the impolitic braggart disposed of 15 Republican contenders in the primary, and he’s been salivating at the chance to take on Hillary Clinton ever since.
While Clinton is preparing for “different Trumps” at the debate, according to NBC News, this Trump is the one she undoubtedly expects to see. Most of the more disciplined Trump that emerged in late August and early September can be attributed to one device: a TelePrompter, which Trump won’t have on Monday.
The question here is just how aggressive Trump will be, and what issues he’ll bring up. Will he stick to calling out her use of a private email server, her judgment in supporting the interventions in Iraq and Libya, the questions over “pay to play” at the Clinton Foundation, and her remarks about the “basket of deplorables?” Or will Trump, as he once suggested he might, bring up the more personally sensitive Clinton scandals of the 1990s? Will we hear names like Monica Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers, and Juanita Broaddrick, and will Trump confront Clinton directly on his accusation that she enabled her husband’s womanizing and helped trash the women who accused him of sexual harassment?
That kind of attack from Trump—and how Clinton responds—might be the true wildcard of the debate, and an indication that he believes his only path to victory is not by transforming himself in the eyes of undecided voters but by tearing Clinton down.
The Combative, Complaining Trump
Both campaigns have ramped up the time-honored pre-debate ritual of trying to set, or re-set, expectations for how the candidates will perform. Clinton aides have publicly mused whether Trump will get easier questions from Lester Holt because he has put out so few specific policy proposals on which he could be pressed.
Trump, not surprisingly, has been far less subtle. He has told anyone willing to listen that he expects to be treated unfairly, and on Thursday morning, he warned Holt that he doesn’t want “Candy Crowley again”—a reference to the 2012 debate moderator who corrected Mitt Romney in the middle of an exchange on the Benghazi terrorist attack. Trump even tried calling out Holt for being a Democrat, which would be a crafty strategy if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that, as Time Magazine pointed out, Holt is actually a registered Republican.
Complaining directly to the moderator at the debate is rarely a good look for a candidate, but that has never stopped Trump before. Just ask Megyn Kelly. Trump has repeatedly used the media’s unpopularity to his advantage, and if he feels like Holt is pressing him too aggressively on Monday, don’t be surprised if he treats the NBC anchor as just as much of an opponent as Clinton.
What About Clinton?
Yes, Trump’s unpredictability makes him the main variable in the debate, but there will be two candidates on stage. After weeks of focusing on Trump, Clinton has been talking more about her own policies and vision in the week since she returned to the campaign trail. That strategy is aimed at boosting her own ratings and giving people a reason to vote for her and not merely against Trump, which she hopes will win over some of the voters who polls suggest have drifted over to third-party candidates.
Expect Clinton to spend her time promoting her own policies while having replies ready to the attacks that Trump will surely send her way. Although Democratic lawmakers told Politico that Clinton should lay back and allow Trump to screw up himself, she showed during the primary debates with Sanders a willingness to attack early and occasionally caught him off-guard.
If Donald Trump is consistently inconsistent, then over the course of 90 minutes on Monday night, we’re likely to see a version of each of the personas he has tested out these past 15 months. He may start out on-message and above-the-fray, hitting his familiar notes on trade, immigration, law-and-order, and Making America Great Again. But he’s just as likely to stray from that mantra and take Clinton on, perhaps on an issue he hasn’t yet raised, or perhaps because she’ll bait him into attacking.
Trump may or may not harp on Holt, but after the criticism that fellow NBC anchor Matt Lauer faced for his questioning during the Commander-in-Chief Forum earlier this month, the moderator is under significant pressure to be tougher on the Republican than his colleague was. Can Trump resist complaining?
This article started out with a query that’s really something of a trick question. Which Trump will show up at the debate? The correct answer is probably all of them.