Democrats hungry for Biden-Trump debate

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Senate Democrats are eager to see President Biden debate former President Trump, even though they were leery of the prospect just a matter of weeks ago.

With Biden behind Trump in swing-state polls, Democrats want the president to put a focus on Trump’s character issues and his role in derailing a bipartisan border security deal earlier this year.

They think a debate would put a welcome focus back on the policy differences between the two when campus unrest, Biden’s age and Trump’s legal dramas are monopolizing public attention.

“I think Biden can handle him,” Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said Wednesday after Biden and Trump announced an agreement to debate in June and September, the first hosted by CNN and the second by ABC News.

“Both of them can see an advantage to a debate. I’m glad Biden went forward with it,” he said.

Other Democrats say Biden couldn’t continue to ignore Trump’s demands for one-on-one debates after falling behind in the polls in several key battleground states, including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania.

“It’s a show of confidence on Biden’s part that he’s going to be able to debate and eviscerate Donald Trump,” said Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). “I’m all-in, and I’m glad the president proposed the debates. He’s got a solid record to stand on and a lot to tear apart and expose on the part of Trump.”

Welch acknowledged “we have work to do” after a recent New York Times/Siena College poll showed Biden trailing Trump in several states the president won in 2020, including Nevada, where Trump has a double-digit lead.

The poll also showed Trump with healthy leads in Arizona and Georgia — 9 points and 8 points, respectively, when independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is included in the field.

Some Democratic senators say Biden needs to roll the dice by taking on Trump, one-on-one, even though there’s a risk in doing so given the unpredictable nature of a debate.

“A debate is always a risk. You can screw up in significant ways or shine in significant ways,” said one Democratic senator who requested anonymity to discuss Biden’s debate strategy.

The senator said “everyone’s talking” about the New York Times/Siena College poll, which the lawmaker said has awakened Democrats to the very real chance that Trump could win in November.

“The reason that everyone’s talking about it is because if anyone wanted to pretend that there was no possibility that Trump would win is being disabused of that notion,” the source said.

The senator said Biden’s “going to be well-prepared for it, because you cannot mess it up.”

“He’s got to go a lot of practice in which you have Trumpian-style exclamations and exhortations and insults, and hopefully he can respond in ways that make Trump look juvenile and mean-spirited as opposed to engaging in the back-and-forth, which puts them both in the gutter,” the lawmaker said.

Senate Democrats say they hope the moderators of the first debate, CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, can fact-check Trump during the debate — but they acknowledge that’s a tough task, given the speed of the points and rebuttals in front of a national audience.

“Probably, folks should just every time Trump talks hold up a sign that says, ‘Lying, lying,’” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said.

“I think it’s impossible for him to stay on point on a issue or to tell the truth,” she said of Trump.

But she warned it’s extremely difficult to fact-check Trump because “he will say anything and do anything, embellish anything.”

“I think it’s a challenge for any moderator and, frankly, anyone debating him. I have great confidence in President Biden being able to do that,” she added. “The biggest challenge is just that it will be very chaotic.

“If you want to talk about serious things like the climate crisis or the cost for families, you know you’re walking into a situation that with Donald Trump will be complete chaos,” Stabenow warned. “He’ll say anything off the top of his head. It’s all about performance. When you think of Donald Trump in a debate, I just think of pure chaos.”

Democratic senators weren’t thrilled about the idea of Biden standing on a stage alongside a rival facing 90 felony charges in four different criminal cases, who is on a trial this week over hiding hush-money payments to adult film actor Stormy Daniels.  

“The president, I’m sure, gave that every consideration when he decided to do this. I think what Trump and the American people will discover is that Biden’s a pretty effective debater,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said. “To put a spotlight on that is not a bad thing.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said a debate would give Biden a chance to challenge Trump over his claims about election fraud and other issues.

“Pointing out where Donald Trump has not been honest with the public is a good thing, and we need to do more of that,” she said.

It wasn’t long ago that Democrats were expressing more worries about Biden debating Trump.

“I would think twice about it,” Durbin said in January. “I’ve been physically present at one of [Trump’s] debates with Hillary Clinton, and I watched him do outrageous things and say outrageous things. It’s just an opportunity for him to display his extremism.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, argued in January that there was no need to dignify Trump by sharing a stage with him, pointing out that Trump completely disrupted the first presidential debate of the 2020 general election, which was moderated by then-Fox News host Chris Wallace.

“The fact that former President Trump was unable to conduct himself in just a minimally reasonable way” during the 2020 debate “and that he’s refusing to debate any of his primary opponents this time would make a pretty strong case for not dignifying him as a candidate by sharing a debate stage,” Coons told The Hill earlier this year.

Some Democrats still feel that way.

“I myself would never recommend going on stage with Donald Trump, but the president has decided that’s what he wants to do,” former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told CNN on Wednesday.

She instead suggested CNN or another news outlet hold separate town hall meetings with Biden and Trump and challenge them individually “with questions about the future, and let the public make its decision.”

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