A lot at stake in first debate
Trump, Clinton get a chance to reshape a riotous campaign
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump step onto the biggest shared stage of their presidential campaign tonight chasing the same goal — persuading voters to discard long-held and sharply negative views of them.
Trump faces the biggest task in this first presidential debate, to accomplish in one night what he has not been able to pull off in 15 months — demonstrating to voters beyond his core supporters that he would be a stable and credible occupant of the White House.
Clinton’s task is just slightly less imperative, and that only because of the narrow edge in most polls that she has held onto leading into the debate.
She needs to break through voters’ perceptions of her as untrustworthy and convince them that her years of political experience are matched by a gut-level understanding of the fears and concerns of everyday Americans.
“Debates and convention speeches are the kinds of events where voters open their points of view and come in and are ready to listen,” said veteran Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart.
“For Donald Trump,” he said, “it’s not how clever he is or how bombastic. It’s a
question of ‘Is he serious?’ Does he have the right temperament to be president?’”
As for Clinton: “People know that she is safe in terms of temperament and safe in terms of knowledge and ability,” Hart said. “They are only trying to answer one question: ‘Can I relate to her or, in reverse, can she relate to me?’ ”
Two groups will be foremost in the candidates’ sights: collegeeducated suburbanites who usually vote Republican but have been reluctant to side with Trump, and Democratic- leaning younger voters who threaten to spurn Clinton for minor-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, who will not be onstage.
Those deviations from typical political alliances, coupled with fresh divisions among blue-collar workers, have created a presidential contest whose momentum has flipped back and forth, denying either candidate a lasting lead.
A definitive win by one candidate in the debate — 43 days before Election Day — could reshape the race with very little time left to alter the new trajec- tory in the places that matter. Early voting begins Thursday in Iowa and Oct. 12 in Ohio, with other important states opening balloting a week later.
The race “doesn’t seem to be shifting based on policy positions; it seems to be shifting based on the temperament of the candidate,” Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said. “And that’s why these debates are so important.”
In just the last 10 days, the contest has been rocked by Trump’s effort to put an end to his five-year quest to prove that President Barack Obama was foreignborn, startling terror attacks in three states and days of protests in Charlotte, N.C., after a police shooting of an African American man. Barely have candidates responded to one crisis before another erupted.
Those events have offered a clear look at the opposite approaches the candidates likely will bring to the stage during the 90-minute, nationally televised gathering at Hofstra University in New York’s Long Island suburbs. (Two other presidential debates and one vice-presidential gather- ing will be held before Oct. 19).
Clinton has responded with reserved words and multipart plans, Trump with broad assertions that it’s time to get tough.
What do undecided or unpersuaded voters want to see from the matchup?
“Not what they have,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
“Given the level of disgust with both candidates, it’s hard to pinpoint any one factor that would make many people feel a lot better about either one,” he said.
Far more voters are either undecided or siding with minor party candidates this year than at comparable times in previous presidential elections. Typically, interest in alternative candidates drops as election day nears and voters focus on those more likely to inhabit the White House.
Yet given the distaste for both candidates, it is not clear if that tradition will hold. That is particularly true for younger voters, many of whom sided with Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries.
Sanders has been campaigning for Clinton among those voters, but many have been reluctant to Workers install the set for the first U.S. presidential debate, to be held at 9 tonight at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. embrace her as they once did Obama.
The corollary for Trump is finding some way to appeal to the overlapping voting groups that so far have disdained him: suburban voters, college-educated whites and women. They make up a growing share of the vote, to his peril, in key states like Pennsylvania and Virginia, which currently make up Clinton’s election firewall.
A new NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday illustrated the difficulty for Trump in attempting to overcome what that survey pegged as a 6-point Clinton advantage among voters likely to cast ballots this fall. (Trump has picked up ground in some important states, but Clinton retains more options to getting to 270 Electoral College votes).
Among women, the NBC/ WSJ poll found, Clinton held a 14-point lead; among those with college educations, she led by 7. Trump led by 2 points among men and 18 points among those without a college education, not enough to overcome Clinton’s strengths.