Can Biden keep running out the clock?
Mr. Trump has every reason to seize this 90-minute debate to make the best case for his re-election and attack Mr. Biden. But Mr. Biden will walk on the stage with a decidedly less urgent to-do list.
Given his lead in the polls and his propensity for the occasional misstatement, Mr. Biden did not really need this final debate. When Mr. Trump balked at the virtual format for the second debate, Mr. Biden moved instantly to schedule a town hall event with voters.
Both Democratic and Republican strategists said that Mr. Biden’s task at the first debate was to present himself as cogent and in command, to rebut with his appearance the suggestion by Mr. Trump that Mr. Biden at 77 was getting slow with age. (Mr. Trump is 74.) By every account, Mr. Biden crossed that barrier.
Mr. Biden can use the debate to make a closing argument and to lay out his case against Mr. Trump, particularly for his faltering response to a pandemic that has killed over 220,000 people in the United States. Beyond that, Mr. Biden may well be tempted to simply run out the clock. A no-runs, no-hits, no-errors performance is probably all he needs.
The pandemic still trails the president.
Mr. Trump will be taking the stage this time as someone who has been a coronavirus patient, announcing he had the virus shortly after the first debate. He spent three days in the hospital, where he was the beneficiary of some of the most aggressive and cutting-edge treatment, and has proclaimed himself cured. It was not just Mr. Trump: Covid-19 swept the White House after the nomination ceremony there for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, an event distinguished by the lack of social distancing or masks.
Mr. Trump has seemed eager to move on from talking about the pandemic. He has argued, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the nation has turned a corner on the virus. He has defied medical experts in traveling the country holding rallies and mocking the use of masks.
But no issue has defined this contest, or has hurt him politically, as much as the pandemic.
He has struggled, in interviews and the last debate, to defend his response to the crisis and suggest that many people, including Mr. Biden, also failed to appreciate the gravity of the threat in the early days. But Mr. Trump’s personal experience — the widespread criticism that his lack of precautions contributed to the outbreak at the White House — will be a subtext for at least part of the debate.