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Final face-off: everything you need to know about the last Trump-Biden debate

One last chance before Election Day to see the candidates clash.

Updated: October 21, 2020 - 11:18pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

And then there was one.

President Trump will face off one last time with Democratic challenger Joe Biden in a debate, which will fall just 12 days before voters go to the polls (although by then, more than 30 million Americans will have already voted). 

Here's everything you need to know.

THE BASICS

When:

Thursday, Oct. 22, 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. EDT

Where:

Belmont University, Nashville, Tennessee

The Format:

The debate will be divided into six segments of approximately 15 minutes each on major topics to be selected by the moderator, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) announced. 

The moderator will open each segment with a question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Candidates will then have an opportunity to respond to each other. The moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic.

The CPD announced on Monday that the candidates will be muted for the two-minute opening statement portions for all six of the debate's 15-minute segments.

THE TOPICS

COVID-19:

The two candidates got into it over that major topic in their first face-off, with Trump defending his administration's efforts to handle the pandemic and Biden slamming those efforts as insufficient.

"The president has no plan," Biden said. "He hasn't laid out anything. He knew all the way back in February how serious this crisis was. He knew it was a deadly disease. What did he do? ... He said he didn't tell us or give people a warning of it, because he didn't want to panic the American people. You don't panic, he panicked."

Said Trump: "We got the gowns, we got the masks, we made the ventilators — you wouldn't have made ventilators — and now we're weeks away from a vaccine. We're doing therapeutics already, fewer people are dying when they get sick, far fewer people are dying. We've done a great job."

Both candidates will double down on those stances, but look for Trump to make a bigger effort to explain just what his administration did to stem the virus.

American Families:

This will be a new topic for both candidates, one they didn't get into much in their first debate. Trump will tout the economy — which was going gangbusters before the virus hit — and Biden will attack the president for perceived shortcomings.

"Make no mistake: America has been knocked down," Biden's webpage says on the issue. "The unemployment rate is higher than it was in the Great Recession. Millions have lost jobs, hours, pay, health care, or the small business they started, through no fault of their own. ... This is the moment to imagine and build a new American economy for our families and the next generation."

Trump, meanwhile, has been making an appeal in his campaign speeches of late to suburban women and mothers.

"I'm about law and order," he said in Pennsylvania. "I'm about having you safe. I'm about having your suburban communities. Suburban women, will you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?"

Both candidates will try to appeal to those women, the heads of many families. But some polls are showing Trump's support among the group slipping, so look for him to make a hard push.

Race in America:

With the deaths of several black men at the hands of police leading to riots and looting in several U.S. cities this summer, the issue of race has been looming large over the campaign. 

The two candidates mixed it up on the issue in the first debate.

"This is a president who has used everything as a dog whistle to try to generate racist hatred, racist division," Biden said. "This man has done virtually nothing. Look, the fact is that you have to look at what he talks about. You have to look at what he did. And what it did has been disastrous for the African-American community."

Trump, for his part, didn't so much defend his administration's record on the issue as attack Biden's record. 

"You've treated the black community about as bad as anybody in this country," he said. "And that's why, if you look at the polls, I'm doing better than any Republican has done in a long time. Because they saw what you did."

Biden needs the black vote more than Trump, who got just 8% of the community's vote in 2016. But three prominent black rappers — Kanye West, Ice Cube and, most recently, 50 Cent — have expressed support for Trump, so look for him to try to woo more black voters.

Climate Change:

This topic routinely comes up waaaay down the list when pollsters ask voters what they most care about. Not to mention the fact that those who believe humans are a big part of global warming are most likely already voting for Biden.

The topic came up in the first debate, with Trump declaring: "I want crystal clean water and air. I want beautiful, clean air." He went on to tout his actions as president, saying: "We have now the lowest carbon, if you look at our numbers right now, we are doing phenomenally."

Asked if humans contribute to global warming, Trump said, "To an extent, yes."

Biden, meanwhile, was in his wheelhouse. But he ended up voicing support for the Green New Deal, a plan put forward by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), which "will pay for itself as we move forward," he said, adding, "You're not going to build plants that in fact are great polluting plants."

The plan is estimated to cost $100 trillion over a decade.

"It's going to create millions of good paying jobs," Biden said. "And these tax incentives to people to weatherize." 

Look for both candidates to double down on their talking points and quickly move on to more important issues.

National Security:

Foreign policy and national security were two topics not well mined in the first debate. But with the world in flux and China flexing its muscles, both candidates will want to exhibit the kind of strength voters want in a commander in chief.

While Trump has a four-year record, Biden, at least tangentially as former President Barack Obama's partner, has an eight-year record, not to mention his 35 years in the Senate.

As president, Trump has sought to bring American troops home from "endless wars." The president also pledged to rebuild the military and revamp trade agreements.

"Four years ago I ran for president because I could not watch this betrayal of our country any longer," Trump said in an August speech. "I could not sit by as career politicians let other countries take advantage of us on trade, borders, foreign policy and national defense. Unlike previous administrations, I have kept America out of new wars, and our troops are coming home."

Biden, meanwhile, claims America is disliked abroad and vows to take "immediate steps" to restore alliances. He says he will also reform the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. "In a Biden administration, America will lead by example and rally the world to meet our common challenges that no one nation can face on its own," he says on his website.

This topic could well provide some fireworks.

Leadership:

Biden says Trump, while he is actually the president of the most powerful country in the world, has failed to rise to the task. "The United States must lead not just with the example of power, but the power of our example," he says.

"During his first year in office, President Biden will bring together the world's democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values," his website says.

"From day one of a Biden administration, other countries will once again have reason to trust and respect the word of an American president," he says.

Trump, meanwhile, will have to defend his administration's response to COVID-19, which some critics say was too little too late. But he also has key free trade deals that he helped push through, which benefitted millions of Americans.

"Joe Biden should not be asking for your support," Trump said in a recent campaign speech. "He should be begging for your forgiveness."

The president has criticized Biden's past support for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Trump replaced with a new pact, as well as withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017. "He betrayed you, he lied to you, he abused you," Trump said. "Which is why it's time to retire Joe Biden."

Look for this topic to perhaps bring the fireworks of the night — and maybe even a few viral moments.

THE MODERATOR

Here's where things get dicey. Kristen Welker, the NBC News White House correspondent who also serves as co-anchor of "Weekend Today," was picked by the CPD to serve as moderator.

Trump is, apparently, not too happy with the selection. "She's always been terrible & unfair, just like most of the Fake News reporters, but I'll still play the game. The people know!" Trump wrote on Twitter on Saturday.

In his tweet, Trump included a link to a New York Post story that said Welker has "deep Democrat ties." According to the paper:

"Welker comes from an established Democratic family — who have poured cash into party coffers, and to Trump opponents, for years. Her mother, Julie Welker, a prominent real estate broker in Philadelphia, and father, Harvey Welker, a consulting engineer, have donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates and close to $20,000 to Barack Obama alone.

"There was also $3,300 for Joe Biden's 2020 campaign and $2,100 for Hillary Clinton's doomed 2016 presidential effort against Trump. Another $7,300 was contributed to the Democratic National Committee between 2004 and 2020. Though Kristen Welker's party registration is not listed today, she was a registered Democrat in Washington, DC, in 2012 and in Rhode Island in 2004."

In his tweet, Trump also said, "How's Steve Scully doing?" Scully was scheduled to be the moderator of the second debate, but after the CPD announced the debate would be held virtually — with Trump and Biden appearing from different venues — the president bailed. The day of that scheduled debate, C-SPAN suspended the political editor indefinitely after he admitted that he lied about his Twitter feed being hacked.

The 30-year C-SPAN veteran had found himself in hot water after a post on Twitter showed him communicating with former Trump aide Anthony Scaramucci, who left the administration in disgrace after just 15 days on the job, then transformed himself into one of the president's harshest detractors. Earlier this month, after Trump had criticized Scully as a "never Trumper," Scully tweeted "@Scaramucci should I respond to Trump." There were reports that Scully had meant to send a direct message, not post a tweet.

"Out of frustration, I sent a brief tweet addressed to Anthony Scaramucci," Scully eventually admitted. "The next morning when I saw that this tweet had created a new controversy, I falsely claimed that my Twitter account had been hacked."

Fox News' Chris Wallace, who moderated the first debate, quickly lost control and the whole thing descended into chaos. The pressure will be on Welker to keep a firm hand on the two candidates so it doesn't happen it again.

THE CANDIDATES' STYLES

By most accounts, especially in the mainstream media, Trump shot himself in the foot in the first debate. Intent on being seen as tough, the president would hardly let Biden get a word in edgewise.

One exchange about Trump Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett's view on abortion illustrates the mayhem that took place.

Biden: "Well, let me finish. The point is that the president also is opposed to Roe v Wade. That's on the ballot as well, in the court. And so that's also at stake, right now. It's —"

Trump: "You don't know that's on the ballot. Why is it on the ballot? Why is it on the ballot? It's not on the ballot —"

Biden: "It's on the ballot in the court —"

Trump: "I don't think so. There's nothing happening there. You don't know her view on Roe v Wade."

Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller told "Fox News Sunday" Trump will take a different approach from the first debate.

"When you talk about style, when you talk about approach, I do think that President Trump is going to give Joe Biden a little bit more room to explain himself on some of these issues," Miller said. "I do think the president's going to want to hear Joe Biden's answer on some of these, and will definitely give all the time that Joe Biden wants to talk about packing the court, I think he's going to get it on Thursday."

And while it's not an official topic, look for Trump to bring up the swirling scandal around Biden's son Hunter's laptop, which allegedly contains details about his dealings with foreign energy companies. 

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