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What Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley Voters Think Of 1st Presidential Debate

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There are a lot of words to describe last night's presidential debate. Respectful, dignified, calm - they would probably not top your list. So what's the takeaway? Did we actually learn anything about the candidates or their positions? And did the exchanges change any voters' minds? - questions we're going to put now to three voters in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. Why there? Because in a key swing state - Pennsylvania is among the handful of states that could decide the election if it's close - the Lehigh Valley is a key swing region.

I made a reporting trip to the Valley over the summer to hear what was on people's minds, and I woke up this morning so curious about what they had made of the debate. So let me introduce everybody. And I will start with Victor Martinez, who is morning show host for a local Spanish radio station and a Democrat.

Welcome.

VICTOR MARTINEZ: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Let me also say hello again to Frank DeVito. He's an attorney, a member of the Northampton County Election Commission, a Republican. And I had the pleasure of interviewing you, Frank, when we were up there this summer. So good to talk to you again.

FRANK DEVITO: Yes, you, too. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: And last but not least, Holly Preuss. She is a technology marketing manager. She's a registered independent, and she was undecided, at least going into last night.

Holly Preuss, welcome to you, too.

HOLLY PREUSS: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: I laid out a few words that you would be unlikely to apply to last night - respectful, dignified and so on. I wonder, if I were to ask each of you - one word to sum up last night and your reaction. Victor, you first.

MARINEZ: Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: OK, wow. We'll let you elaborate on that. Frank.

DEVITO: Unproductive.

KELLY: And Holly.

PREUSS: Unpresidential.

KELLY: Well, let me dig into each of those. Holly, was there a standout moment for you? If you were describing this debate to, I don't know, your best friend who lives on Mars and didn't get to watch it, is there one moment you would say you have got to go back and see what happened?

PREUSS: It began a little bit with Trump interrupting the moderator, Chris Wallace, and then just denigrated rather quickly with Joe Biden then calling the sitting president a clown multiple times and then just telling him to shut up. It was just extremely painful to watch.

KELLY: Frank, how about for you - a standout moment?

DEVITO: I think one standout moment for me would be toward the end. I think that was the only time where I saw real substance from President Trump. It was a short answer, but he was asked, why are you better than Joe Biden? You know, pre-COVID, we had the lowest unemployment rates. We've increased funding and revamping the military, including Space Force technology, and we've appointed nearly 300 judges. There were at least concrete reasons. And I think for his own voters and maybe for some of the undecided, that was a standout moment to me where it's like we can get beyond all the interrupting, the name-calling and the silliness that was most of this debate and actually have something that we can see as a policy and a reason to vote for somebody or not.

KELLY: Victor Martinez, let me get you to elaborate on wow. What is the moment that's going to stick with you?

MARINEZ: The entire debate, the fact that we couldn't hear neither one of them give an answer. Unfortunately, the president just couldn't help himself. It looked like he came ready to fight, and the minute the bell went off, he just refused to stop punching.

KELLY: Let me ask about a moment where the moderator, Chris Wallace, was trying to get the candidates on record on a matter of substance. Wallace asked President Trump if he was willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups. So let's listen to a bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS WALLACE: Are you prepared to specifically...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Sure, I'm willing to do that. But...

JOE BIDEN: Then do it.

WALLACE: Well, go ahead, sir.

TRUMP: I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing. If you look...

WALLACE: So what are you saying...

TRUMP: I'm willing to do anything. I want to see peace.

WALLACE: Well, then do it, sir.

BIDEN: Say it. Do it. Say it.

TRUMP: You want to call them - what do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name.

WALLACE: White supremacists and right...

TRUMP: Go ahead. Who would you like me to condemn?

BIDEN: The Proud Boys.

WALLACE: White supremacists and right-wing militia.

BIDEN: The Proud Boys.

TRUMP: The Proud Boys - stand back and stand by.

KELLY: A lot of crosstalk there, but as you can hear, the president did not condemn white supremacists. Proud Boys - we should note this is a far-right group that the FBI has labeled an extremist group. Frank, I got to ask - as a Republican listening, what was your reaction when you heard that?

DEVITO: Sure. Well, I would say that I think about 10 seconds before that, while - to the earlier point about Trump not really being able to contain himself, while Chris Wallace was asking that question - would you be willing to condemn white supremacists? - and I think he used another term, Trump did say, more than once, sure, sure, I will, under - but under his breath and while the question was still being asked. Of course, I think it would be...

KELLY: He didn't do it, though. I mean...

DEVITO: ...A clearer, much better soundbite for us to just have yes. He said - what? - stand down and stand by or something like that.

KELLY: Stand back and stand by, which the Proud Boys has taken and made badges. They're tweeting it out and seem to be delighted by the president's statement. Holly, let me turn you to Joe Biden. He went into this debate ahead in the polls. His task last night, I think you could argue, was to close the deal. As someone who went into this debate undecided, did he succeed? Are you any closer now to knowing how you will vote?

PREUSS: I found, whether it was reassuring myself and others that the election was going to be fair, that these absentee votes were not going to cause havoc, his statements about the struggles of his son - those things all hit home. And I felt that this was a person who understood other people and was going to be a good leader. But what I didn't get out of him was concrete information that addressed the issues that are facing this country, which are substantial. And I really took deep offense to Trump's statements inciting additional violence in Portland, Ore., essentially is what it comes down to. I had a very serious problem with any of that. And I just - was just left kind of deflated that either one of these two were in any position to lead this country.

KELLY: Let me throw one more question into the mix, which is this - we once again heard the president continuing to insist that this election will be rigged, that he's expecting fraud and refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose. How worried are each of you about what the coming weeks may bring? Holly, you first.

PREUSS: Yes. I guess I am not afraid that, for instance, should Donald Trump lose, that he's going to literally not leave. I mean, that - I don't - I think that's a little bit too far. I am concerned that if the election is too close that both sides will get entrapped in a endless court battle.

DEVITO: Yeah. I agree with Holly a hundred percent. I'm not worried about anyone - like, Trump actually not leaving office or there being a real dispute physically of that sort. But I do agree that there's a worry that it's going to be tied up in courts. And as somebody involved in elections law and on the commission here in my county, I can say that that's almost guaranteed.

KELLY: Victor, last word.

MARINEZ: I agree with Frank 100%, if you can believe it (laughter).

KELLY: Bipartisan agreement that this is going to be a mess in November.

MARINEZ: Absolutely. I'm so concerned that I made a conscious decision that I am not going to vote by mail. I'm going to go vote the day of the election. As you mentioned, I am a host of a morning show at a Spanish radio station. I am telling my listeners every morning for the last month since Trump started this whole mail fraud thing, telling them, you know what? We can't take a chance. Put on a mask. Put on gloves. Take your hand sanitizer. Go and vote in person. Don't allow your vote to be contested or stolen. Go vote in person. If we can go to the grocery stores, if we can go to restaurants, we can go to vote.

KELLY: All right. Well, thank you so much to all three of you. That's three voters in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. Thank you very much.

MARINEZ: Thank you.

DEVITO: Thank you.

PREUSS: Thanks.

KELLY: We've been talking with Victor Martinez, who says he is backing Joe Biden; Frank DeVito, who is planning to vote to reelect Donald Trump; and independent voter Holly Preuss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.