The final presidential debate: five things to watch

With less than two weeks to go until election day, Donald Trump and Joe Biden will share the stage in Nashville, Tennessee, on Thursday night for the second and final presidential debate.

The president and his Democratic challenger had been scheduled to participate in three presidential debates ahead of November’s election. But the head-to-head set for last week was scrapped after Mr Trump pulled out, after the president rejected organisers’ plans for the debate to be held virtually following his diagnosis with coronavirus.

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With Mr Biden, the former vice-president, leading in the national opinion polls by a 8.6-point margin, according to Financial Times analysis of RealClearPolitics data, Mr Trump will need a strong performance in Thursday’s debate if he is to secure a second term in the White House.

Here are five things to look out for in the 90-minute debate, which starts at 9pm EST.

New rules to rein in candidates

The first presidential debate was widely seen as a chaotic spectacle, with Mr Trump regularly interrupting Mr Biden and rejecting requests from the moderator, Fox News presenter Chris Wallace, to respect the rules set out by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. 

This time, the commission has imposed new rules, giving Mr Trump and Mr Biden two minutes of uninterrupted time at the start of each section of the debate, with each candidate’s microphone turned off when it is not his turn to speak.

It remains to be seen how Mr Trump will react and whether he will continue with his aggressive stance or strike a moderate tone, especially in light of polling that suggests his first debate performance hurt his standing with voters.

Pandemic still top of the agenda

The coronavirus pandemic will loom large on Thursday night, especially given Mr Trump tested positive for Covid-19 just two days after the first debate, raising still-unanswered questions about when he and his staffers had last tested negative for the virus.

Opinion polls suggest Mr Trump’s handling of his own illness damaged his standing with voters, a majority of whom disapprove of his handling of the pandemic, which has killed almost 220,000 Americans.

In recent days, the president has lashed out at Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious disease expert and member of the White House coronavirus task force, calling him a “disaster”.

Expect Mr Biden to repeat his criticisms of the Trump administration’s response to the health crisis and to call out the president for his personal behaviour, including his repeated rejection of wearing face masks despite recommendations from public health experts.

Line chart showing how Trump and Biden are doing in the US national polls

Clash likely on stimulus package

As Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and Democratic house speaker Nancy Pelosi try to reach an agreement on a follow-up stimulus package, Mr Trump and Mr Biden are likely to trade barbs about who bears responsibility for a bill not being passed sooner.

While Mr Trump has laid blame squarely at the feet of Ms Pelosi, he has also suggested that he may be willing to agree to a larger package than the White House initially supported and has insisted that if he backs the deal, Senate Republicans will too. 

Some polls still show that voters trust the president more on the economy than Mr Biden — a potential boon for Mr Trump. However, other surveys, including this week’s FT-Peterson poll, show the president is losing his edge on this issue.

Foreign policy gets an airing

One of the clearest areas of disagreement between the two candidates is on foreign policy, which has received scant attention during the general election but is likely to get at least some air time on Thursday.

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The president’s campaign has signalled that Mr Trump is expected to attack Mr Biden for his 2002 vote supporting the US invasion of Iraq and his backing for the nuclear deal with Iran. 

Mr Biden, meanwhile, will probably attack Mr Trump for leaving the Paris climate accord, undermining Nato, and allegedly cozying up to authoritarian leaders such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. 

Hunter Biden in Trump’s sights

The Trump campaign has said that if NBC moderator Kristen Welker does not bring up Mr Biden’s son, Hunter, at the debate on Thursday, the president will.

In the wake of a series of unconfirmed New York Post reports about Mr Biden’s son, the president has called on the justice department to investigate his Democratic rival and his family. The Biden campaign has rejected any suggestion of wrongdoing.

Mr Trump also brought up Hunter Biden and his struggle with addiction in the first presidential debate. 

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