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Biden Aims To Use Debate To Solidify His Advantage Over Trump

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So most polls show Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a steady lead over President Trump. We do not know what the coming weeks will bring; we do know tomorrow night's debate could be important. Former Vice President Biden actually has a lot of experience with high-stakes debates. NPR's Scott Detrow has more.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: For Joe Biden, the primary debates were mostly unmemorable and, well, at times rocky. He had some early stumbles, like confusing a number to text with a website.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: If you agree with me, go to Joe 3-0-3-3-0 and help me in this fight.

DETROW: Biden's campaign mostly viewed the crowded debates as something to take part in and move on from; they didn't think they'd change the race. But as the primary turned into a two-man contest between Biden and Bernie Sanders, Biden got sharper. That was especially true in March in the only one-on-one debate between the two candidates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Bernie's implication is somehow I'm being funded by millionaires. Bernie, look; in the last - on Super Tuesday and before that, Bernie outspent me two, three, four, five, six to one. And I still won. I didn't have any money, and I still won.

DETROW: Dan Senor is an expert on Biden's debate strategy. The Republican operative prepped then-Congressman Paul Ryan for the 2012 vice presidential debate. His main question going into tomorrow is how the Biden campaign views the race.

DAN SENOR: Do they think they're winning and they just have to not screw it up? And are they running the clock?

DETROW: If so, Senor expects the Joe Biden who debated Sarah Palin in 2008 - someone there to look presidential and, mostly, kind of ignore the opponent standing across the stage. But if the Biden campaign sees a reason to tangle with President Trump, Senor would expect the Biden who came to the 2012 debate with Ryan, ready to interrupt and dismiss his opponent's arguments as malarkey. Biden's camp is hinting toward the first approach.

Campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon recently talked to Politico about the debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEN O'MALLEY DILLON: Our strategy being speaking directly to the American people, speaking about the issues that are impacting people - like COVID, like the economy, school reopening, health care, Social Security.

DETROW: But at the same time, the campaign is also hinting Biden will likely be much more aggressive with Trump than he was with any Democratic rivals. Faiz Shakir, who managed Bernie Sanders' campaign, is well aware Biden has that ability.

FAIZ SHAKIR: Biden can be an aggressor in these debates and will jump at the opportunity to frame it up because he knows where this conversation's going to go. He's no dummy. He's savvy. He's been in politics for a while.

DETROW: Like Trump, Sanders went into his one-on-one debate behind Biden in the polls, hoping that a weak debate performance from Biden could shift the race. But Biden came out swinging, preemptively criticizing Sanders for voting against the 2008 bank bailout, which had been a mainstay of Sanders' attacks against Biden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Had those banks all gone under, all those people Bernie says he cares about would be in deep trouble - deep, deep trouble - all those little folks. We'd have gone out of business.

DETROW: Shakir does expect Trump to attack Biden personally and to try to set traps for him to create viral or memorable moments at his rival's expense. Still, Dan Senor thinks it's Biden, not Trump, whose performance is most important, especially since Trump and Republicans have repeatedly framed Biden as someone in rapid mental decline.

SENOR: The analogy I keep thinking of is Reagan and Carter in '80.

DETROW: In that race, voters had mostly soured on Jimmy Carter but were unsure of Ronald Reagan. Carter's campaign had framed Reagan as dangerous.

SENOR: They painted this picture of Reagan that was, like, as a volatile, bomb-throwing, not-entirely-there cowboy.

DETROW: Reagan had a good debate, and suddenly, in the final days of the race, his tentative lead over an unpopular incumbent shifted fast to a blowout victory.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "BREAK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.