“Having low expectations going into a debate makes it a lot easier to win. If voters assume the candidate is super polished, then the smallest mistake will be magnified. If a candidate acts out of character, it forces voters to reassess what they think about them. That's why a gaffe onstage can be so devastating,” longtime Republican strategist and GOP presidential campaign veteran Alex Conant highlighted.
Ahead of next week’s first general election debate between President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, the president and the Trump campaign have been trying to portray the former vice president as a seasoned debater with decades of experience.
"I'm the one without experience. He's been doing it for 47 years," the president emphasized in an interview Thursday on Fox News' Brian Kilmeade's radio program.
But the move may be coming too late in the game – and appears too disingenuous – after six months of the president, the Trump campaign, and allied groups and surrogates repeatedly questioning the 77-year old Biden’s mental acuity.
“Joe Biden has been a Washington politician for 47 years, he spent decades in the Senate where all they do is debate, he was vice president twice, and debated on the national stage in each of those races, and did very well,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh emphasized Monday in an interview with Fox News.
“In the Democrat primaries, he debated a whole crowd of opponents, 11 times, and he won,” Murtaugh stressed. “He bested two dozen Democrat challengers.” He put a ribbon around his point by adding that Biden “knows his way around the debate stage.”
But just a month earlier, Murtaugh – speaking with Fox News – questioned whether Biden had suffered cognitive decline over the past couple of years.
"It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have, but voters deserve to be able to assess Joe Biden’s capabilities by seeing him and listening to him in his own words, especially as compared to just a few years ago," he said.
The president and his campaign for months have questioned whether Biden has the stamina to serve as the nation’s commander in chief. Trump has described Biden as being senile and has repeatedly used the derogatory nickname “Sleepy Joe” to portray Biden as old and out of touch.
“Joe’s not all there. Everybody knows it. And it’s sad when you look at it and you see it, ” Trump said during an interview with Fox News in June.
Last month, the Trump campaign launched a digital ad during the Democratic National Convention that suggest that Biden had suffered cognitive decline. The spot asked, “Did something happen to Joe Biden?” and it cut between clips of then-Vice President Biden from 2015 and 2016 speaking clearly and energetically and video of Biden stumbling and appearing to lose his train of thought during the 2020 presidential campaign.
Now, as the Trump campaign tries to rewrite the script on Biden’s debate prowess, their past attacks on the former vice president appear to have dramatically lowered the bar for the former vice president, making their new mission exceedingly difficult to accomplish.
“The Trump campaign and Trump himself have lowered expectations. I think Trump supporters are going to be surprised when they see Joe Biden actually have it together and is not the caricature that the Trump campaign has painted for months. I think Vice President Biden will benefit from that,” Democratic strategist Chris Moyer pointed out.
“We often question what the Trump campaign is doing, Trump himself. There’s not some grand strategy. This is an example of how that is true. This was not a great idea,” argued Moyer, a veteran of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and Sen. Cory Booker’s 2020 Democratic nomination bid.
“They have lowered expectations, which is not helpful,” acknowledged veteran Republican consultant Brian Walsh.
But Walsh, a veteran of numerous Senate, congressional and gubernatorial campaigns, pointed out that “at the same time, the former vice president needs to meet even those low expectations. If he stumbles as he has at various points on the campaign trail, that will build into the narrative that they’ve developed against him.”
Dan Eberhart, a major donor and bundler for the president and other Republicans, told Fox News: “I think in this case, Trump’s earlier attacks are more on target and I think it puts a huge spotlight on Biden. It puts more eyeballs on Biden and his performance to validate that he hasn’t lost too much of his steps to do the job.”
Eberhart argued that the question going into next week’s debate remains is Biden’s “mental acuity still sharp enough to handle the rigors of the job.”
Trump, at 74, is only three years younger than Biden, and his mental focus has also been questioned during this presidential campaign. It’s far from the first time a candidate has been questioned over the issue.
Conant emphasized that “if voters have questions about a candidate's health or stamina, a debate is a really good opportunity for the candidate to alleviate those concerns. Ronald Reagan was a master at that, especially in the 1984 debate.”
Reagan – debating former Vice President Walter Mondale, who was 17 years younger than the incumbent president – famously said during their showdown: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Biden’s campaign is gingerly jumping into the expectations game ahead of Tuesday’s debate in Cleveland, which will be moderated by Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace.
In an apparent move to raise expectations for the president, a source familiar with the former vice president’s campaign told Fox News earlier this week that they expect Trump will be “extremely practiced” and “prepared” to debate Biden.
But at the same time, the source tried to downplay the importance of the debate, saying “there is no debate performance that can fundamentally shift the race because of what people are living through,” referring to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everyone is stuck in a reality on account of Trump’s mismanagement, so there is no outcome during the debate that can really change the trajectory of this race,” the source told Fox News. “If Trump has a good debate, which we anticipate, and he has no compunctions about lying through his teeth and making things up on the spot, American life is still defined by his failure to have any plan to beat COVID.”
Fox News’ Brooke Singman contributed to this report.