What to know as Biden and Trump clash in first presidential debate

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President Biden and former President Donald Trump will clash Thursday night in their crucial first presidential debate of the 2024 election, a potentially defining early moment in their White House rematch.

At a time of year when re-runs should be ruling the airwaves, the televised CNN debate is likely to attract the biggest single audience of the entire campaign up to Election Day in November.

The debate comes as the two men are locked in a neck-and-neck race for the presidency, with polls showing a virtually deadlocked contest and voters saying they wish both parties would have picked other candidates.

That dynamic raises the stakes even higher: If either man can make a breakthrough with even a relatively small group of voters, it could change the entire course of the race.

A disastrous slip-up, on the other hand, would likely be magnified and live on in the electorate’s imagination for months.

Here are some key things to know about the debate:



Signs advertising the presidential debate hosted by CNN are seen outside of their studios on June 25, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. U.S. President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump will face off in the first presidential debate of the 2024 presidential cycle this Thursday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Signs advertising the presidential debate hosted by CNN outside of their studios in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

When and where is the debate?

The 90-minute debate will be held at CNN’s studios in Atlanta, starting at 9 p.m. The moderators will be Jake Tapper and Dana Bash.

There will be no studio audience, eliminating the possibility of cheering or booing by supporters.

The candidates’ microphones will be muted except when it’s their turn to speak, potentially preventing Trump from continually interrupting Biden or the moderators like he did in 2020.

There will be two commercial breaks, but the candidates won’t be permitted to confer with aides.

Why is the debate happening so early in the campaign?

Both campaigns believe their candidate benefits from debating as soon as possible.

Trump spent months saying Biden was too old to debate and predicted he would seek to avoid a face-to-face confrontation. The former president repeatedly vowed to debate anytime and anywhere.

Biden’s team has long believed his poll numbers will improve when voters start to focus on the race as a binary choice between the incumbent and Trump, instead of a referendum on his handling of issues like the economy or immigration.

So when CNN proposed the summer debate, both sides quickly agreed in a matter of hours. Trump surprised some observers by agreeing to the conditions demanded by Biden, especially the muted microphones and no audience.

Both campaigns also want to reach voters early because tens of millions of voters will start casting mail-in votes soon after Labor Day, earlier than ever before.

What Biden wants to achieve

Biden hopes to remind America why they elected him four years ago, and why they voted against Trump.

Saddled with widespread concerns about his age, Biden’s first goal is to show voters that he is capable of running the country for four more years after months of attacks from Republicans that he is senile or worse.

He also needs to aggressively defend his record on issues like the economy and immigration, topics that many voters give him poor marks for.

Biden also wants to use the debate to draw an unflattering contrast with Trump, whom many voters now view more favorably than they did when he left office.

He will surely try to exploit Trump’s mercurial personality by baiting him into damaging statements, perhaps about his support for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, or his New York felony conviction and ongoing criminal trials.

How Trump could win

Trump first and foremost wants to appear more vigorous and dynamic than Biden.

The former president regularly brags to his crowds of loyal supporters of his mental sharpness, which he compares to Biden’s supposed decline, and he will want to showcase that perceived edge.

Trump will also hope to mock Biden’s ability to handle key problems faced by the nation, like immigration and inflation.

He could shock the world by delivering an even and controlled message that America needs a change after four years of Biden.

What could go wrong?

For Biden, a senior moment could dramatize his age in the worst possible way. It might harden the popular image of him as far past his shelf life for the White House.

Trump might lose his temper or lash out at Biden in an unpredictable way. A volcanic outburst would remind millions why they voted to remove him four years ago, and shouldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes.

Why the debate might not matter as much as you think

The earliest previous presidential debate took place in mid-September.

It’s unknown whether this year’s first debate will have the same outsized impact on public opinion, because it is taking place so early in the political season.

The political party conventions will take place in July and August, giving both sides a chance to reset their pitches to voters.

Unless there is some kind of dramatic defining event, the debate might fade in voters’ minds by November.

Will there be any more debates?

A second debate is scheduled to be hosted by ABC on Sept. 10. Trump has demanded more face-to-face jousts but Biden hasn’t agreed.

There is expected to be a debate between Vice President Kamala Harris and whomever Trump picks as his running mate, but the campaigns have not yet agreed on dates or details.

What about RFK Jr.?

The vaccine-skeptical independent candidate didn’t win enough support in polls to qualify and has not qualified for the ballot in states comprising a majority of Electoral College votes.

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