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2 campaign strategists on how Trump and Biden should approach debate

In the first presidential debate of the general election, both candidates want to perform well and avoid mistakes. How are they preparing before they take the stage? Republican strategist Brett O’Donnell, who worked with five presidential candidates on debate prep, and Democratic strategist Jennifer Palmieri, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign communications director, join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we don't know much about how this debate will affect Americans' votes, but it's safe to assume both candidates want to do well.

    To talk about what's at stake for each one, how they may be thinking about tonight, two guests join us.

    Brett O'Donnell is a Republican strategist who has worked on debate preparation for five presidential candidates, including George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney. And Jennifer Palmieri is a Democratic strategist who served as communications director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, as well as in the Obama White House.

    And we welcome both of you to the "NewsHour."

    I want to start by asking you both what you think each candidate's goal should be tonight.

    Jennifer Palmieri, to you first about Joe Biden. What do you think he needs to do?

  • Jennifer Palmieri:

    So, this is a big opportunity for him.

    I think that what I found in the '16 campaign was, it was really hard to get control of the public narrative, because Trump takes up so much oxygen in the media.

    And so, for Biden, this is an opportunity for him to have an enormous audience. In 2016, 84 million people watched the first debate. So, we're likely to have those kinds of numbers again. And people don't hear from him that much, probably because of COVID, partly because Trump does get so much attention.

    And there is about 5 percent of voters that are undecided, and he has got an opportunity to make a case for them on COVID, on the economy, where he would take the country.

    I think he should be much more focused on making his own argument than in responding to anything that Trump throws his way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Brett O'Donnell, how do you look at what the goals should be tonight for Joe Biden?

  • Brett O’Donnell:

    Well, Joe Biden's goal is to keep this election about Donald Trump. Donald Trump's goal is to make this a choice election. He wants to make this about the race between him and Joe Biden, rather than just a referendum on his presidency.

    I think both of them need to remain on offense, if they're to be successful. The trap of incumbent presidents happened to Ronald Reagan in 84, happened to George W. Bush in 2004, and happened to Barack Obama in 2012 That trap is, you have got a record of four years, and so you fall on to defense, as opposed to playing offense, like a candidate who has not been president before.

    And so, really, that's the pitfalls that Donald Trump faces. But his goal should be to be focused on Biden and to make it a choice election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jennifer Palmieri, what would you add to that? What — how do you see what the president's goal should be tonight?

  • Jennifer Palmieri:

    I think Brett's probably right that voters know what they know about Trump. I don't think that they're looking to learn more about him in order to make their decision.

    So, from his perspective — and it might not be great to watch, but for him to attack Biden could — that's probably the best use of his time on stage. He has started already saying — questioning the vice president — the former vice president's capabilities. He wanted him to have a drug test. He's claiming that there's some kind of device in Biden's ear giving him answers.

    And if that's what he's — if that's the setup for going into the debate, I think that's what Biden can expect.

    Now, the problem for Trump in doing that, though, is, he is setting expectations very low for Joe Biden's performance. Biden's kind of a gamer. He has been on big debate stages before, as vice president, all throughout the presidential primary this cycle. And he's pretty good at it.

    So I don't think you're going to see him falter. And if he has a really strong performance tonight, is able to win over some of the people that are undecided this — that could put Trump in a really precarious place, with 30-plus days to go.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Brett O'Donnell, for the president, smart for him to just keep up that very aggressive approach that we know him so well for?

  • Brett O’Donnell:


    I mean, part of the advantage for the president is, no one has yet really successfully figured out how to debate Donald Trump. He is a very unconventional candidate. Candidates that took him on in the primary debates back in 2015 and '16 had trouble with him, whether it was they debated him as a conventional candidate. They didn't do so well.

    Or when they tried to be unconventional, like Marco Rubio, and debate on his level, that also didn't go very well for him. So, if the president recaptures that spirit, that same debater that he was in 2016, that will serve him very well tonight.

    If he falls into the trap of playing defense and worrying about defending every minutia of his record, that's what got — that's what got prior presidents, incumbent presidents, into trouble.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Jen Palmieri, we heard a little bit from Lisa Yamiche about how they're preparing, or actually not very much about the specifics of how they're preparing.

    But what should each one — I know you just talked about their goal, but what kinds of things can you do to get ready for a night like this?

  • Jennifer Palmieri:

    For Biden — I mean, I know a little bit about how Biden works. When we prepped Hillary Clinton, she would do both sort of big, fat briefing books — but that works for her. It doesn't work for everybody — as well as mock debates, stand up, do the actual 90 minutes, have somebody play Trump, go through that a few times.

    It's not how Biden works. Biden likes to just sort of talk through — just sort of talk through what his answers are going to be, what his best arguments are.

    The most important thing — it's going to sound trite, but these are humans, and it's so important — is that they feel prepared, that whatever that it is that they need to do to feel confident when they walk out on the stage, they know there's sort of three offensive points that they want to hit.

    They know how they're going to approach attacks from the other side. I don't think Joe Biden should go down rabbit holes. I don't think he needs to fact-check Trump. There's probably a couple of times, if Trump says things about his record, about Biden's record, that aren't true, that are important to correct in real time.

    Otherwise, he should play his game. And so, when you're preparing him, the most important things — I mean, this is such a big audience that they're going to be speaking to — is, you have the proactive points that you want to make ready to go. You don't walk off the stage without having done that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Brett O'Donnell, I mean, we have heard time and again President Trump not the conventional candidate, not the conventional debater.

    What — can you imagine how he's getting ready for this?

  • Brett O’Donnell:

    Well, Jennifer is actually right.

    I mean, it's about doing what your candidate thinks is best to get them mentally ready for that particular debate. And so I have worked with several presidential candidates. Each one of them wanted to prepare in a slightly different way.

    Some people want to just study their material. Some folks want to do more on-your-feet practice. Some candidates like to just sit around a conference table and talk through questions and work out answers that way.

    The job of a good political debate coach is to make sure you adapt your preparation method to what will have your candidate ready to walk out on that stage. It's all about message and moments. It's about having them ready to drive a message that the public will remember and create moments which will reinforce that message and capture the press narrative, so that you can write the headline for the debate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, just finally, just a few seconds from each of you on how many people out there, do you think, are really open-minded, ready to be persuaded one way or another?

    Jen Palmieri?

  • Jennifer Palmieri:

    I think it's about 5 percent of voters, which sounds like not very much, but those are the people who are going to decide the election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Brett O'Donnell?

  • Brett O’Donnell:

    I agree, though these will be the most watched debates in debate history, in my prediction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Even bigger than the 80-some million we saw in 2016?

  • Brett O’Donnell:

    I absolutely think so.

    We have been deprived of a normal campaign to this point. And so I think people are hungry to watch these two on the stage.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You are probably right.

    Brett O'Donnell, Jennifer Palmieri, we thank you both so much. Thank you.

  • Brett O’Donnell:

    You're welcome.

  • Jennifer Palmieri:

    Thanks, Judy.

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