Hillary Clinton prepares for ‘reality show’ debates – USA TODAY
The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump promises to be the most watched ever, the audience could exceed 100 million people.
When it comes to demonstrating a mastery of policy,Â Hillary Clinton should be positioned to ace the first 2016 presidential debate on Sept. 26.
Her long record in government service and self-described wonky love of policy detailÂ gives her a decided edge overÂ her Republican rival, Donald Trump, a neophyte to electoral politics who has often been light on specifics, such as how he plans toÂ defeat the Islamic StateÂ andÂ how he would pay for his proposed tax cuts.
But according to Democrats close to the former secretary of State, Clinton is honingÂ anotherÂ skill set as she prepares to spar with the GOPâs most unconventional candidate since fall debates became a mainstay of presidential campaigns..
âIf we knew this was going to be a debate about issues, I would say Hillary Clinton will blow him out of the water,â said Maria Cardona, a former senior adviser to her 2008 campaign. âWe all know thatâs not going to be the kind of debate this is,â she said. âHe will transform that debate stage into a reality show.â
“We’re preparing for whatever Trump shows up,” communications director Jennifer Palmieri told USA TODAY, declining to provide specifics.
The Democratic presidential nomineeâs challenge is to intercept his rhetorical jabs,Â matter-of-factly highlightÂ his controversial rhetoric and policies â like his proposal to ban immigration fromÂ Muslim nationsÂ â and encourage him to showÂ flashes of his temperament, for instance, by questioning his business record. She mustÂ quicklyÂ pivot off subjects like the 2012Â Benghazi terror attack in Libya, her private email serverÂ and her recent remarks that many of the GOP nominee’sÂ supporters are âdeplorable,â all points Trump is likely to hammer.
With recent concern about the state of her health and Trump attacking her as “weak” on terrorism, sheâll also want to projectÂ an image of vitality and strength. Polls showing a tight race underscore the imperative of going on offense against Trump.Â Finally, and perhaps most importantly, she’s got to do it all while appearing more âlikable.” The unfavorable ratings of the two candidates are similar (Clinton is at 56% and Trump at 54%), according to a recent CNN/ORC poll.
As the first woman to lead a major U.S. political party’s ticket, thatâs harder than it appears. Social science research shows that women are often penalizedÂ for appearing strong and authoritative. âItâs hard to be likable and be tough and strong,â said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster close to the campaign. Indeed, in surveys in 2014 and 2015 byÂ Burning Glass Consulting, one of Clintonâs main challenges with women voters was a sense that sheâs overly ambitious.
These pressures could be tricky to navigate given the Clinton team’s recent focusÂ on softening her image.Â The Democratic presidential nominee told a website calledÂ Humans of New York that she knows she “can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional,” because, she said, “I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions.”Â She alsoÂ released a video highlighting her relationship with a breast cancer patientÂ and has been making herself more accessible to the media for questions.
The stakes are significant, with a recent ABC News poll showing nearly a quarter of Americans say the debates will have a major impact on their choice for president.
Trump also has significant challenges â heâll be pressed to articulateÂ policy details in a way he hasnât before. AndÂ his penchant for lobbing personal attacks may be riskier opposite a female than it was on a GOP primary stage largely crowded with men. Yet Clinton canât assume that Trump will self-destruct. âThere were (many)Â Republicans who felt the same way,â said Lake, referring to his vanquished primary challengers.
Clinton faces higher bar
Trump has madeÂ numerous false statements throughout the campaign. Politifact, in its semiannual review, rated 60% of Trumpâs major claims false, to 13% of Clinton’s, including his repeated claim that heÂ opposed the Iraq invasion before it happened.
Trump’s wide base of supportÂ suggests theÂ public mayÂ have accepted his tendency to misstate the facts, said Ed Rogers, a Republican campaign consultant who served under President George H.W. Bush. What’s more,Â Clinton is a moreÂ experienced debater thanÂ Trump.Â âThe bar is low for him and high for her,â said Rogers, who’s been openly critical of Trump. âHe has to just not be an idiot,” said Rogers.
This “low bar,” according to the campaign, is their biggest concern. “He should be treated as an equal,” said Palmieri. “What Iâm worried about is the low expectations, the grading him and judging him on a curve,” she said. Itâs also unclear whether or how often the moderators will correct him. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who is hosting the final forum, has said it’s not his job “to be a truth squad. Itâs up to the other person to catch them on that.â
The problem isÂ âthe public wonât necessarily recognize they are incorrect,â said Lake. âA lot will depend on the moderators. This is a huge variable,â she said. âAre they going to hold Trump accountable? Itâs very hard for her to be the only person trying to do so.â
AÂ Gallup review of debate historyÂ underscores the cause forÂ concern. In 2000, then-Texas governor George W. Bush was considered a less able debater than Democrat Al Gore, who had an 8-point lead before the first debate on Oct. 3.Â Â Although a Gallup survey that night found 48% ofÂ watchers thought Gore won, toÂ 41% who chose Bush, “the post-debate media spin may have been more favorable to Bush,” Gallup says. Polling in the first three days afterwardÂ showed the race tied at 43%.
Can she play to her strengths?
One of Clinton’sÂ greatest strengths is her unflappability, and her 11-hour testimony last October before the House special Benghazi committee is the barometerÂ aides say indicates her ability to withstand significant emotional and physical stress.
The potential for unexpected attack lines isÂ significantÂ considering Trump’sÂ closest advisers include Republican operatives Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News, Stephen Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, the conservativeÂ website thatâs fanned rumors about her health, and Roger Stone, a strategistÂ known for his use of hard-edgedÂ opposition research.
If Trump lobs personal attacks, her response should beÂ strong but sympathetic â and not defensive, said Cardona.Â She must âlet her emotions show through in a way that makes her look human,â but mindful of gender stereotypes, not âoverly emotional,â she said. In a Tuesday appearance on “The Steve Harvey Show,” Â Clinton said she’s ready.Â “I can take that kind of stuff. Iâve been at this. And I understand itâs a contact sport.”
The potential for such psychological warfare increased after what were once Internet conspiracy rumors about Clintonâs health went mainstream due to footage of her stumbling as she left a Sept. 11 memorial ceremony. Her campaign later announced she was suffering from pneumonia.Â Trump has said she doesnât have the âstaminaâ to occupy the presidency and his surrogates have also been fanning speculation about her health. On Tuesday, Trump mocked her for taking a day off the trail, which her aides said was for debate preparation.
It was during the 1988 campaign, when Ailes was advising the George H.W. Bush campaign, that Democrat Michael Dukakis was politically damaged by rumors about his mental health. Even then-President Ronald Reagan fannedÂ the flames by saying âI wonât pick on an invalidâ at a press conference. Dukakis also âhad to go out walking in ridiculous running shorts to prove he was fit,â said Matt Bennett, who was a junior aide at the time.
There are also real risks for Trump.
The real estate billionaireâs alpha male attack instinctsÂ âÂ displayed during the primaries when he mockedÂ Sen. Marco Rubio for sweatingÂ and branded Sen. Ted Cruz âLyin Tedâ âÂ could work inÂ her favor. During the primaries, Trump saw a backlash after he disparaged the looks of former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina.
In Clinton’sÂ 2000 Senate campaign, Republican Rick Lazioâs campaign all but fell apart after he walked over to herÂ with a piece of paper demanding she sign a pledge against soft money, a move that came off as bullying. And President Obamaâs quip in 2008 that âyouâre likable enough, Hillaryâ was considered one of his worst debate moments.
Last week on Fox News, Trump would not rule out personal attacks, saying he’llÂ treat ClintonÂ “with great respect unless she treats me in a certain manner, in which case that will be the end of that.”
In 2014, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, now a Trump surrogate, offered some advice to any Republican facing off with the former first lady and U.S. senator. He gave an interview to Politico in which he opined on the best way to beat her.
âThe wrong way is to be too aggressive, and be too mean, and to ever get personal,â said Giuliani. âThe right way to do it is on policy and on true contribution,â he said.
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