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Debate scorecard: A round-by-round analysis of the chaotic Trump-Biden matchup

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Los Angeles Times political reporter Seema Mehta and columnist Gustavo Arellano break down the first 2020 presidential debate. Did either man stand out?

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Joe Biden and President Trump met on the debate stage for the first time Tuesday in Cleveland. Both men had a lot at stake, even though very few voters remain undecided. To analyze the debate, we gathered four journalists to assess the candidates’ answers, attitudes and untruths — and interruptions. Here are their takeaways of the night, round by round:

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Round 1

President Trump at debate.
President Trump interrupted Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace repeatedly in the first segment of the debate.
(Associated Press)

Seema Mehta, political reporter: The first presidential debate was unlike any in recent history from its very start, with President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden not shaking hands and a sparse, mostly mask-clad audience because of COVID-19. It went downhill from there. The candidates began talking about Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, but it’s unclear what, if anything, voters got from the exchange, since it devolved into the two men talking over each other repeatedly. Trump instigated by repeatedly interrupting Biden, and when moderator Chris Wallace tried to intervene, the president repeatedly interrupted him. The segment concluded with Biden shaking his head and saying, “Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential.”
Takeaway: If this opening sets the tone for the rest of the night, voters will be the ultimate losers in tonight’s debate.

David Lauter, Washington bureau chief: Trump proved that he can speak louder than Biden and more forcefully. That will undoubtedly stoke the voters already in his camp. But if that’s what the majority of voters wanted for the next four years, Trump would be winning the election. So far, he’s not. Biden has spent the last nine months campaigning on returning the country to normal, lowering the temperature and the volume. The opening of the debate made that contrast very clear. The problem for Trump is that he’s created an image of Biden as senile and doddering. The candidate voters see on the screen is soft-spoken and a bit old-fashioned, but not senile.
Takeaway: Trump is playing to type, and that’s a type that the majority of voters seem to have tired of.

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Noah Bierman, White House reporter: Well, that didn’t take long. Trump didn’t let five minutes pass before interrupting everything Biden had to say with a string of insults, false claims and asides. Biden tried his best to avoid getting rattled, smiling as much as he could and calling Trump a liar. But when Trump keeps speaking, it’s almost impossible to talk. “Will you shut up, man?” Biden finally said. “That was a productive segment, wasn’t it?” Biden still managed to make his top points: warning that Trump’s court nominee threatens healthcare and attacking Trump’s record on COVID-19. Trump just kept throwing out names, especially the term “socialist.” He showed his strategy but didn’t lay out much of a second term.
Takeaway: Trump is trying to turn this into a circus.

Gustavo Arellano, columnist: Biden made the same mistake at first that every Democratic old-guarder ever did in trying to take on Trump: He tried to be civil. And so he was made to look like a doddering nice guy. Biden tried to craft conversations based on numbers and history and policy; Trump interrupted. Again. And again. The picture of Trump’s mouth curled in smugness and Biden staring out, silent for seconds, will launch a million memes. When will Biden and anyone who debates Trump ever just sing “Bringing in the Sheaves” as Trump goes on and on with one-liners? All I got out of the actual topic — the Supreme Court — is that the nominee is a “top-top academic.” Biden did say at the end that Trump does “yap.” At the very end.
Takeaway: Biden can’t be so nice. Niceness will not win a single point, voter or debate.

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Round 2:

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden gestures at the debate.
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden gestures while speaking during the presidential debate Tuesday at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
(Associated Press)

Mehta: Moderator Chris Wallace lost control of the debate, at one point raising his hands, saying, “Gentleman! Gentleman! Stop!” and imploring President Trump to stop interrupting. His plea came after a raucous exchange over Trump’s tax returns and his COVID response that Trump used to attack Biden’s son Hunter over unsubstantiated allegations. Biden responded with one of his more effective lines of the night, saying it wasn’t about his family or Trump’s family — it was about American families.

Trump denied reports that he paid only $750 in federal income taxes in two recent years, offering myriad responses — he paid millions, any smart person would want to decrease their tax burden “unless they’re stupid,” and Biden was responsible for not dealing with loopholes during his time in Washington. Biden simply responded — “Show us your tax returns.” The men continued to spar, with Biden at one point concluding: “You’re the worst president America has ever had.” Biden was the somber truth-teller, speaking of the toll the COVID-19 crisis has taken on American families. The pair did outline some policy differences on how they believe the economy should be reopened — a vital issue for voters struggling economically who also remain concerned about the coronavirus.
Takeaway: The debate devolves (even more).

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Lauter: “He doesn’t want to talk about what you need, you, the American people,” Biden said, looking directly at the camera. This was the segment of the debate on the economy, which has long been Trump’s strong point with voters. But instead of consistently focusing attention on his economic record, Trump veered into accusing Biden’s son Hunter of inappropriately taking money from Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company. That’s been the issue that Trump and his aides have pushed for more than a year, with little evidence that it’s helped him much. Before the debate, Republicans repeatedly suggested that Trump could trigger Biden to lose his temper. So far, that strategy hasn’t worked.
Takeaway: Trump has had trouble throughout this campaign finding a line of attack against Biden that would stick. A third of the way into the debate, he still hasn’t found one.

Bierman: As the discussion turned to the pandemic and Trump’s decision to hold campaign rallies against public health guidelines, Biden looked into the camera: “He’s not worried about you,” Biden said. That’s Biden’s central point, that Trump is in it just for himself. He hasn’t had much time to make that point during this debate, with repeated interruptions from Trump. But he has tried, as much as possible, to talk directly to the public and make the case that Trump is too selfish to take care of the country’s well-being.

Trump has responded by trying to make the discussion about the media, politics and Biden’s family. He blamed Democrats for closing businesses, calling that a political ploy. He attacked Biden’s son Hunter for his overseas work. And he blamed the media for convincing the public that he has done a bad job on the coronavirus.
Takeaway: Trump doesn’t want the election to be a referendum on his handling of COVID.

Arellano: When Joe Biden talks directly into the camera — directly to the voters — is when he’s at his best. When he sticks to a message and ignores Trump, he seems like the president, and Trump comes off as a shrill pretender. Biden did that for the coronavirus topic, and dominated, as much as Trump tried to make it into a victory lap. Biden’s one-liners — “The president has no plan,” “You should get out of your bunker and sand trap,” “14,000 people died of [the 2009 swine flu], not 200,000” — landed and flustered Trump. And then using Trump’s previous comments about coronavirus against him — being gone by Easter, summer, and the wonders of bleach? All Trump was able to do was get mad and triggered by the word “smart.” He was left attacking leading infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, for reasons known only to him.

Biden took the energy of that topic into his opening remarks on the economy. Trump’s immediate comeback? He talked about how he helped to open Big 10 football — which seemed like a non sequitur of braggadocio but was a bone thrown at the very voters he needs. The big question, of course, was Trump’s taxes. Trump insisted he paid “millions of dollars.” Trump’s line — “In 47 months, I’ve done more than you’ve done in 47 years” — was obviously rehearsed, but a good one. Biden, smartly, didn’t flinch. The economy discussion degraded into a referendum on Hunter Biden. Biden, sadly, fell for the trap. He should’ve stuck to how he started the coronavirus segment — and then he remembered. “This is not about my family or his family, but [voters’] families” is the line that the Democrats should play on a loop for the rest of the campaign.
Takeaway: Biden needs to not get caught in the Trump cobweb — and when he does, his scissors need to be sharp. And smart.

Fact-checking the debate: President Trump unleashed a blizzard of falsehoods; Joe Biden hewed closer to the truth, but strayed at times.

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Round 3:

Moderator Chris Wallace moderates the debate.
Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News attempts to stop the interruptions during the debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
(Associated Press)

Mehta: Moments after Biden repeatedly said he supports “law and order,” Trump accused his Democratic rival of refusing to say he supported law and order. The moment was a good illustration of the debate, which appeared to be taking place on two different planets.

As the candidates offered their views on race, Trump sought to appeal to voters looking for a return to the America of yesteryear and argued that racial insensitivity training was trying to make people hate America. Biden spoke of turning away from the policies of the past and seeking a future of reconciliation, and accused Trump of using overt “dog whistles.” As Wallace tried to shepherd the conversation toward violence in American cities, Trump interrupted him so frequently that Wallace responded, “If you want to switch seats, we can do that.”
Takeaway: A stark choice for voters is on display.

Lauter: So far, each of these candidates is playing to type. Trump is loud, self-congratulatory and willing to get into quarrels with anyone, including the moderator. Biden is more soft-spoken, sometimes willing to let Trump talk over him. Trump’s core supporters admire him for those traits, seeing him as authentic and uncowed by traditional politics. But well over half the country has an unfavorable impression of the president, largely because of those same personality traits. Trump has dominated the stage, much as his personality has dominated the campaign. That has not been to his benefit.
Takeaway: There’s been a lot of sound and some fury in this debate, but not much so far that’s likely to change many votes.

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Bierman: Trump had a strong attack line on the question of systemic racism, pointing to Biden’s advocacy for the 1994 crime law that disproportionately affected African Americans. But it went downhill for Trump from there, as he went on a rant against the federal government’s racial sensitivity training and warned that Biden would demolish the suburbs.

Biden called Trump a racist and called out what he described as a 1950s dog whistle. But he was hardly a champion for systemic change, insisting the high-profile killings of Black men and women at the hands of police were often the result of “bad apples,” trying to assure people it can all be worked out with a big meeting at the White House.
Takeaway: Biden is going for the American middle and hoping more liberal supporters will come along.

Arellano: Trump’s one advantage over Biden is fearful voters. And nothing has freaked out Republicans and more than a few liberals more than America’s reckoning with race this year in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. Cue Trump’s intonations of “radical leftists” and antifa and Chicago and Portland and all the other bugaboos of Fox News and KFI. Biden had no answer to it other than rightfully calling them “dog whistles,” because no answer would work.

In this bifurcated America, either you think we need a conversation about race, or you don’t. And he had no real answer to Trump saying — rightfully — that Biden can’t afford to anger the progressive wing of his party. Biden did fine and didn’t anger the voters — but Trump cast himself as the law-and-order president ready to save the suburbs, an image that Biden had no real response to.
Takeaway: Either you think Trump will save your lawn, or you don’t.

A look at where President Trump and Joe Biden stand on key issues in the 2020 election, including healthcare, immigration, police reform and climate.

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Round 4 and final thoughts

President Trump and Joe Biden debate in Ohio.
President Trump and Joe Biden spar on the debate stage.
(Associated Press)

Mehta: Trump and Biden appealed to their core supporters throughout the night in an exhausting, nearly 100-minute exchange, with the president showcasing the brash persona that won him the White House, and the former vice president offering a cerebral, somber alternative aimed at voters who strayed from the Democratic fold four years ago.

The president sought to deflect attacks on his record by aggressively — and sometimes inaccurately — attacking Biden’s words and plans and arguing that he was merely a shill for the most liberal elements of his party. At times, it was deeply ugly, such as when Biden was speaking about his late son’s service in Iraq, and Trump responded that he was not familiar with that son, then brought up another son’s drug addiction.

Biden sought to offer a calm, unchaotic contrast to the president, responding coolly to the president’s insults. He seemed subdued compared to the president, though he did punctuate his responses with occasional insults. The final discussion about election integrity offered another stark contrast between the two men, with Biden speaking about the safety of the process, and Trump arguing that the entire system is rigged, claiming ballots are being dumped into rivers and urging his supporters to be “poll watchers.”
Takeaway: After watching tonight’s debate, it’s hard to imagine how any voter can be undecided, because the candidates offer two such different paths.

Lauter: The final moments of the debate largely encapsulated the entire 90 minutes: Trump loudly rehashing his objections to mail-in ballots and conspicuously declining to say that he would urge his supporters to remain patient during the vote count; Biden calling for calm, urging people to vote and pledging to be the president of all Americans, not just his own party.

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Trump’s bluster appeals to his base, who have rewarded him with fierce loyalty. But it turns off the voters in the middle to whom Biden has tried to appeal. The Democrat didn’t come off as the most forceful of presidential candidates, but neither did he appear scary or disruptive. For Biden, that’s probably all he needed.
Takeaway: Trump came into this debate significantly behind, and it’s hard to see how what he did tonight changed that.

Bierman: Trump had two goals: convince Americans that Biden is not capable of running the country and make a case that he deserves a second term. We didn’t hear much about Trump’s second-term agenda, and Biden, thanks to the cartoonishly low expectations set by Trump, didn’t disqualify himself. Trump’s other attacks — calling Biden a socialist and rehashing his son Hunter’s problems — are not likely to resonate beyond Trump’s political base.

Biden didn’t set the world on fire. But he managed to get his main points out — attacking Trump’s character and his handling of the virus and the economy. Trump, by interrupting repeatedly, reinforced the notion that he is rude and disrespectful. Neither man gave us much policy, but we got a clear sense of how they would behave in office and where they’d take the country. The name-calling, the ugly grimaces and the interrupting, mostly from Trump, made me think I was watching “Grumpy Old Men.”
Takeaway: Biden’s campaign team does not think these debates will change many minds, and they may be right.

Arellano: Biden returned to his biggest strength for this final segment: He spoke directly to the camera, directly to American voters, and asked them to vote. The integrity of the election, for him, rests on the electorate and nothing else. Not politics, not the Supreme Court. American voters. What a radical thought. Yet one that needs to be stated nowadays.

Trump? In a two-minute rant that Biden smartly allowed to go on and on and on to the point that the president ended with babbling about Manhattan, Trump said the election is already a conspiracy and that the Democrats have harassed him since the start. Classic Trump: nothing inspirational, all fear.
Takeaway: Chris Wallace grounded out to first as a moderator. Heaven help us all for the next two debates ... and the only thing that can sway voters in this election is fear for the future. Which future do you see yourself in?

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off in Cleveland in their first presidential debate.

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Our journalists:

Clockwise from top left, David Lauter, Seema Mehta, Noah Bierman and Gustavo Arellano.
(Times Staff)

David Lauter: Lauter is the Washington bureau chief and has covered Congress, the Supreme Court, the White House and four presidential campaigns.

Seema Mehta: Before the 2020 campaign, Mehta reported on three previous presidential races and gubernatorial, Senate and mayoral contests.

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Noah Bierman: Bierman covers the White House in Washington and previously wrote for the paper’s national desk.

Gustavo Arellano: Arellano writes columns about California and the West. He previously worked at OC Weekly as a reporter and editor and wrote the ¡Ask a Mexican! column.