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Clinton and Trump’s first debate may be as much about psychological warfare as policy

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton face-off on the debate stage for the first time tonight. Here’s what to expect. Read more>>

Perhaps never have Americans been as familiar with both presidential nominees as they are with the two on the debate stage Monday night. 

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump needs to spend much time introducing themselves to voters. Instead, they will seek to use this uninterrupted forum to sharpen attacks, provoke and knock the other off balance. 

The result could be a battle of psychology as much as policy. 

“Anything is possible,” said Elizabeth Ossoff, chair of the psychology department at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. “In the past, we might have been able to predict where the candidates were going to go in terms of their policy strengths.… But I also think they know what people have been responding to, and the moderator is going to go to some of these character issues as well.”

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Here are some hurdles Clinton and Trump must overcome and strengths they can turn to in their last big chance to sway the unusually large chunk of the electorate that remains undecided.

1. Trump as Oval Office occupant 

Trump thrived in the freewheeling Republican primary debates, relying on his gift of timing and his willingness to insult or be vulgar. The most infamous instance came in Florida in March when he responded to Sen. Marco Rubio’s personal attacks.

"He referred to my hands. If they're small, something else must be small," a defensive Trump said. "I guarantee you there's no problem. I guarantee it."

While those performances were memorable, they also led to criticisms that Trump lacks the temperament to serve as commander in chief, a line of attack the Clinton campaign has seized on.

Whether he can tone down his approach — or whether he wants to — is one of the chief questions about Monday’s debate. Trump has in recent weeks stuck closer to a script, speaking regularly with a teleprompter and hewing to a message of change while casting Clinton as the embodiment of the status quo.

If Clinton finds a more sober Trump onstage, she may be tempted to go after what have proved to be his emotional triggers, another analyst said.

“There’s one area that makes him anxious, where he doesn’t look comfortable, he looks different to me as a psychologist, and that is when they talk about his bankruptcies,” said Bart Rossi, a clinical psychologist, referring to Trump’s business record. “He’s always good at deflecting, minimizing, marginalizing everything. But not on bankruptcies.” 

2. Clinton’s likability 

Clinton’s ratings on favorability and trustworthiness are among the lowest for major-party nominees — save for Trump’s. Still, they are barriers for her in winning the votes of independents and Republicans put off by Trump’s inexperience and bombast.

Her use of a private email server while secretary of State and the investigations it spawned have been key factors weighing her down.

She also faces a challenge unique to women in seeking power, Ossoff said.

“Even though she’s seen as competent, there’s a sense of unease with a woman in that position,” she said. “So people may look for, at some level — a subconscious level — a way of reducing her legitimacy toward that role by seeking out some of these other attributes that people have focused on.”

How does she counter those perceptions? Aides for rival Democratic campaigns pointed to the opening and closing statements she made in primary debates this year, particularly when she shared more of her personal story or connected her work to a specific policy concern such as the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

“I want to be a president who takes care of the big problems and the problems that are affecting the people of our country every day,” Clinton said in a Democratic primary debate in South Carolina.

3. ‘Crooked Hillary’

Trump’s need to show presidential temperament may come into conflict with one of his most effective tools: boiling down a message about his opponent into a single, catchy put-down. “Low-energy” Jeb Bush, “Little Marco” Rubio and “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz led to “Crooked Hillary.” The insult will probably feature in Monday’s night’s debate as Trump seeks to push Clinton off balance.

“That has a tendency to place the other person immediately on the defensive, and rather than come out and better Trump on what they know, they’re responding to his attack,” Ossoff said. “That puts them in a more vulnerable and weaker position in the eyes of the people watching it.”

Ossoff saw little value in Clinton nicknaming Trump in return.

“It’s hard to play that one-up game without being seen in the eyes of the voters as too hard and too cold and not fulfilling the stereotype of the female personality,” she said.

4. One on one

Trump’s biggest liability could be the clock. As the number of candidates in Republican debates dwindled, the time for answers expanded. Trump struggled to fill time, and he opened himself to more fact checking from his opponents and the moderators, though not nearly as much as Clinton is likely to engage in.

Democrats hope he is unlikely to last 90 minutes onstage without an outburst, particularly in the face of sustained challenge and counterarguments from a woman.

They point to his first debate last year, in which Fox News’ Megyn Kelly was the first to pose him a direct question about his public comments disparaging women. He bristled at what he saw as unfair treatment: “I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me,” he said. In the days that followed he continued to challenge Kelly as unfair, leading to his suggestion that she had blood “coming out of her wherever” to explain her tough questions.

michael.memoli@latimes.com

For more 2016 campaign coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter

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