A lot at stake in first de­bate

Trump, Clin­ton get a chance to re­shape a ri­otous cam­paign

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Cath­leen Decker

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.

WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY IMAGES

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