Debate diagnosis: A sea of media speculation as Trump, Clinton work the refs

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Let’s face it: The only thing the media love more than a presidential debate is the pre-game chatter.

You can bloviate and speculate and pontificate and predict like a football fan before the Super Bowl, and today’s Trump-Clinton faceoff is a Super Bowl-like event. And if you’re way off base, who really remembers?

We size up the candidates like two prizefighters stepping into the ring. Who will land the best jabs? Who’ll be the strongest counterpuncher? Who can bob and weave? And the referee—in this case NBC’s Lester Holt—will get his share of catcalls no matter what he does.

While a small army of fact-checkers will comb over every policy statement, the Long Island debate, like so many past ones, will turn on moments: the zinger, the reaction shot, the sigh, the flash of temper, that seems to capture who Donald and Hillary are.

Most debates, for all the sound and fury, don’t change elections because they reinforce the preferences of voters. Barack Obama lost the first debate against Mitt Romney, and George W. Bush lost the first two debates against John Kerry, and still got reelected. They, of course, were incumbents, but Hillary Clinton is functioning as the incumbent here, the establishment figure running against the billionaire outsider.

Perhaps the best analogy is 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the White House in his single debate against Jimmy Carter. Reagan had been portrayed as a trigger-happy cowboy who might start a war; that image was dispelled by his reassuring demeanor against Carter’s testy attacks (“There you go again”). Trump faces a similar challenge, needing to cross the commander-in-chief threshold.

What’s amusing is not just how the media are knee-deep in the expectations game, but how both campaigns are playing it as well.

Sean Spicer, the RNC communications chief, doesn’t even try to be subtle in a memo to reporters:

“The pressure is squarely on Hillary Clinton to live up to her reputation as a talented debater…With so much riding on this moment and a wealth of experience working in her favor, Hillary Clinton has no excuse not to turn in a near-flawless performance.”

And the Clinton camp is working the refs as well, openly fretting that Trump will be graded on a curve. “My biggest concern is what kind of standards he is held to,” communications director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters.

The press corps is in hot pursuit of juicy inside details. The New York Times says Hillary is determined to get under Donald’s skin and rattle him, while he’s “approaching the debate like a Big Man on Campus who thinks his last-minute term paper will be dazzling simply because he wrote it…

“Mrs. Clinton has a thick dossier on Mr. Trump after months of research and meetings with her debate team, including analysis and assumptions about his psychological makeup that Clinton advisers described as critical to understanding how to knock Mr. Trump off balance. Mrs. Clinton has concluded that catching Mr. Trump in a lie during the debate is not enough to beat him: She needs the huge television audience to see him as temperamentally unfit for the presidency, and that she has the power to unhinge him.”

Politico says Clinton and her people are preparing for “the different Trumps” that might show up:

“They know that Trump – a quick-study political novice participating in the first one-on-one debate of his life – is a wild card who can turn weeks of pouring over briefing books into mockery with a single, brilliant and bullying punch. ‘The fear is that she’ll get lost in the moment, and no one is better at seizing the moment than Trump,’ said a longtime adviser to both Clintons.”

The Washington Post cites a CNN poll saying more people expect Clinton to do well rather than Trump, 53 to 43 percent:

“That has Clinton’s team arguing that Trump should not be graded on a curve. Will Trump be the aggressive, name-calling combatant who dominated the crowded GOP field, or will he take a more measured, statesmanlike posture?”

Of course, you have to realize where all these leaks are coming from as the two sides jockey for position, trying to psych out the other side and lower expectations for their own.

In the end, the Long Island debate will turn not just on policy but on who comes off as a likable presence and plausible president—and on the one-liners that television and the web will endlessly replay.