Will Donald Trump talk abut the size of his hands again? Or will he withdraw into the background with his pout, only to charge back to viciously attack the moderator? Or, going by his recent makeover, will he be cool, restrained and presidential?
Will Hillary Clinton drown herself in policy minutiae? Or slow-bob her head as she listens, with a plastic smile slapped on? Or will she finally break out of her iron reserve and display a side of herself that is warm, endearing and believable?
Brew yourself a strong coffee or tea on Tuesday morning, when the first presidential debate gets under way in a New York university; it will be late on Monday in the US and the beverage of choice is likely to be something stronger, differently aromatic.
The first on-air showdown of the 2016 race for the White House is expected to draw upwards of 100 million viewers, that’s roughly how many people watch the Super Bowl, the final game of the American football season when the country turns into a string of ghost towns. This is still a guesstimate, no one is quite sure how many will tune in eventually, not factoring in those outside the United States, in India and China for instance.
The first debate will be crucial as the race has tightened in recent days, with Trump not only wiping off the lead posted over him by Clinton after the Democratic convention in Philadelphia but also overtaking her in some polls. Clinton still leads but by a slim three-point national lead in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, but that’s not a situation either she or her campaign is comfortable with.
“I am going to do my very best to communicate as clearly and fearlessly as I can in the face of the insults and the attacks and the bullying and the bigotry that we have seen coming from my opponent," Clinton said on Tuesday on a TV show.
They differ on a whole range of issues, which are well known: immigration, gun rights, America’s global stature and posture, healthcare, taxation, race relations - the list goes on. And they will come up at the debate indeed, but the focus will be on how the nominees conduct themselves, deal with each other and with unforeseen challenges.
Clinton will be ready for Trump’s insults, and possible reference to her husband Bill Clinton’s many affairs, the ongoing email controversy, the Benghazi killings of four Americans. Clinton, her campaign aides have said, is prepared for multiple kinds of Trumps, not knowing which one will show up: the disciplined Trump or the pugnacious Trump who will not hesitate to call her a “loser” to her face.
Clinton will have a few tricks of her own to get under Trump’s skin, throw him off balance and force him to say something offensive, insulting and controversial. She might simply just irritate him calling him “Donald”. She, of course, is also poring over thick files on policy — that is her strength, her expertise.
She has cut down her public appearances in recent days and is hunkered down in practice sessions in and around New York with her team.
Trump, on the other hand, is not a fan of that kind of beaver-like persistence. He has been preparing too but in a more freewheeling way, throwing around ideas and lines with his advisers, focussing on big ideas plans. But he is said to have refused to practice standing at a rostrum to get a feel of the real debate. As The New York Times put it brilliantly, he “is approaching the debate like a Big Man on Campus who thinks his last-minute term paper will be dazzling simply because he wrote it”. Being Trump will be enough.