4 takeaways from a less abrasive — but more revealing — debate between Trump and Biden

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the final 2020 U.S. presidential campaign debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, in the Curb Event Center at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., October 22, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar

On Thursday evening, President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden met in Nashville, Tenn., for the second — and final — socially distanced debate of the 2020 presidential campaign. They arrived with very different jobs to do. 

Biden’s was the easier of the two. Ahead by an average of 9.9 percentage points in the national polls — and leading in enough swing-state surveys to present him with several possible paths to 270 electoral votes — the Democratic nominee simply needed to get through the encounter without committing the kind of dramatic error that could upend the contest at the eleventh hour.  

Biden largely achieved his goal, emphasizing his core message that Trump has botched the United States’ response to COVID-19 and failed to help working-class Americans. The former vice president did have some shaky moments, as when Trump accused him of changing his position on banning hydraulic fracking, a key issue in the swing state of Pennsylvania. 

“Fracking on federal land, I said, no fracking and/or oil on federal land,” Biden replied — a remark the Trump campaign immediately spliced into a web ad. 

Trump, however, had the harder task. To come from behind and defeat Biden on Election Day, the president either needs the state polls to be off by a lot more than in 2016 — or he needs to shift the dynamic, winning over some of the stubborn majority of voters who disapprove of his job performance. Thursday’s debate, which was watched by millions, was probably Trump’s last, best chance to trigger some sort of upheaval in a race that has remained remarkably static throughout a global pandemic, an economic collapse and a racial reckoning in the streets.    

Trump was able to stay somewhat on message and delivered his usual attacks on Biden, calling him a creature of Washington who hasn’t achieved anything during his decades in office. Nevertheless, he didn’t really seize the moment. 

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