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News Analysis: Trump cools his bluster in debate but doesn’t transform a race he’s losing

President Trump curls his right hand into a fist while speaking onstage at the debate
President Trump makes a point at the second and final presidential debate Thursday night at Belmont University in Nashville.
(Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)

Staring down the barrel of electoral defeat, President Trump did something Thursday night that does not come easily to him: He made a course correction.

After spending most of the first debate with Joe Biden hectoring, interrupting and making the exchange almost unwatchable, Trump began the second and final debate showing more restraint.

He didn’t manage to maintain that tone throughout the allotted 90 minutes, and he still brought his trademark bluster and insults, but the calmer approach at least allowed voters to follow the proceedings.

What the debate probably did not do is significantly alter the direction of the race.

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Some Trump allies had hoped the president could shake up the contest with attacks on the foreign business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter. But the much-ballyhooed accusations fell flat, fizzling in a flurry of details incomprehensible to anyone not already steeped in the questionable accusations that Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and his allies have tried to push.

Biden, meanwhile, came to the debate sitting on a steady polling lead and huge cash advantage over Trump with one simple goal: Don’t mess it up.

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off in the second and final 2020 presidential debate Thursday night in Nashville.

He largely achieved that, although he could pay a political price in swing state Pennsylvania for bluntly saying he would eventually stop giving subsidies to oil companies. Still, his supporters were delighted with the debate.

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“Biden just had to appear presidential, and he did,” said former Democratic Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. “Trump wasn’t as nutty as he was the first time, but he ended up reminding people of what they didn’t like about him.”

Republicans, meanwhile, were delighted that Trump did not turn the debate into another train wreck.

Jeff Roe, a veteran GOP strategist, said Trump’s improved performance could help the Republican drive to hold onto the Senate and might shift the momentum that had been turning against the party.

“Exactly what we needed for the next 11 days,” Roe said on Twitter. “All the chips are in the middle of the table. Keep the momentum and bring it home!”

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Trump was under heavy pressure to take a different tack in Thursday’s debate because in the wake of the last debate, his standing in national and battleground state polls crumbled. He lost ground amid his response to his own bout of COVID-19, after which he insisted that the pandemic’s risk is overrated. He resumed his signature rallies across the country, heedless of public health experts’ warnings on the risk of large gatherings.

In recent days, Republicans began to panic at the toll Trump’s lowered standing with voters was starting to take on the rest of the party.

The demands from within his party asked Trump to do several things that don’t come naturally to him — show restraint, focus on policy, dial back the nastiness — in short, create a profile less likely to alienate the dwindling number of voters who might yet change their minds.

Trump managed for much of the debate to abide by debate rules and even complimented the moderator, Kristen Welker of NBC News, after having a volcanic relationship with the moderator of the first debate, Chris Wallace of Fox.

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Trump initially was so well behaved, by comparison, that Biden seemed to be goading him to get him to lose his temper.

Resorting to sarcasm, Biden said of Trump’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, “I don’t understand why this president is unwilling to take on Putin.” He pushed much harder on the president’s tax returns — which showed Trump paid little or no federal income tax in recent years — than he had in the first debate.

Trump grew impatient and more pugnacious as the debate progressed, lobbing the kind of attacks and insults that delight his base. Even after almost four years as president and leader of the free world, he tried to don the mantle of political outsider that was key to his rise and victory in 2016.

“I’m not a typical politician,” he said, after deriding Biden’s repeated tactic of speaking directly to the camera as if to address voters. “That’s why I got elected.”

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“It’s all talk, no action with these politicians,” he said, complaining that Biden had failed to deliver the things he promises now while he was in Congress for decades and in the Obama administration.

Trump tried, as he has throughout the campaign, to label Biden a socialist — an implausible label for a Democrat who was considered center-right in his party’s field of 2020 contenders.

“He thinks he’s running against somebody else,” Biden responded.

Trump also repeatedly deployed one of his classic tactics — accusing his rival of the allegations he faces.

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“I don’t make money from China, you do,” he said — one of several baseless allegations he made against Biden. “I don’t make money from Ukraine, you do.”

Clearly defensive that Biden had blown past him in fundraising, he feigned indifference. “I could blow away your records,” he said.

Faced with accusations by Biden that he’d dodged responsibility for the spread of COVID-19, he responded with a mixed message that seemed to encapsulate much of his approach to the virus: “I take full responsibility. It’s not my fault that it came here. It’s China’s fault.”

Biden parried Trump’s attacks across the full hour and a half and got in several of his own. In the end, he returned to the closing argument he has made in the campaign as a whole — one that hinges on the fact that the two of them are among the best-known politicians in America.

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“You know who I am. You know who he is. You know his character. You know my character,” he said in his final remarks. “Our characters are on the ballot.”

That, in the end, summed up Trump’s problem: Voters by now know who he is and what they think. The second debate was a master class in Trumpism that reminded voters who love him and loathe him why they feel the way they do.

Trump, however, needed an event that might change the way large numbers of voters feel, not reinforce it. It’s unclear whether anything would achieve that goal at this point; almost certainly this debate did not do it.


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