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Politics chat: Biden and Trump pin their hopes on debate to give them an edge

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: When we make real the promise of America for all Americans, the nation changes for the better. Everything from the economy to everything grows.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Now they want to go to an EV. Everybody has to have an electric car. Isn't that wonderful? They don't go far.

(BOOING)

TRUMP: By the way, that ends on the first day.

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Dueling visions for the country, coming soon to the debate stage. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Tam.

KEITH: Hey. So President Biden was at the National Museum of African American History and Culture Friday. Former President Trump was in Saint Paul. Trump addressed the NRA last night in Dallas. It's Morehouse College for Biden today, and we've got more on these elsewhere in the program. But generally speaking, where does the campaign stand today? Like, what's your 10,000-foot read on where we are?

LIASSON: My 10,000-foot read on where the campaign is today is that it's very close, but based on public polling, Donald Trump has a small lead in what I would call the top-tier battleground states. That's Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin taken together. He has a larger lead in the second-tier battleground states - Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada.

And the reason is not that Trump is outperforming his 2020 numbers. He's not. It's because Biden is underperforming his 2020 numbers. He has lost support among some key Democratic constituencies - young people, African American, and Hispanic voters. And under normal political circumstances, we would say that Trump is the slight favorite. He's running against a historically weak incumbent, and reelection campaigns are usually referendums on the incumbent. And that's what this race looks like so far, a referendum on Biden. And you can tell that because there are some key Democratic Senate incumbents and candidates who are pulling ahead of Biden in the battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona.

Now, we're not in normal political circumstances. This is, in effect, a race between two incumbents. Biden is going to be spending tens of millions of dollars to make this race into a binary choice or, if he's lucky, a referendum on Donald Trump. He's trying to remind people of all the things they used to not like about Trump but have forgotten about.

KEITH: This race feels both static and unstable at the same time. And this week, there was this big development. Both Biden and Trump agreed to two debates. Since then, Trump has pushed for more. What is the former president proposing?

LIASSON: Well, you're right. Both of the candidates agreed to a CNN debate in June and an ABC debate in September. Now Donald Trump says he wants a third debate hosted by Fox News and a fourth debate hosted by NBC and Telemundo. Joe Biden says no. The initial agreement is fine with him. I think Trump thinks that Biden will look terrible the more TV exposure he gets, so he thinks that the more debates are better for him.

KEITH: They both seem pretty confident about that, the - about the debates being better for themselves. Trump also said that he is going to demand drug tests before the first debate, which makes me ask you, Mara - do you really think these debates will happen?

LIASSON: I think these debates will happen. I think that Donald Trump's drug test move is his modus operandi. He made similar accusations in 2016. You know, he accuses his opponent, Biden of either being senile or, if Biden performs well, like in the State of the Union, then he must be on drugs. But he did something very similar to Hillary Clinton in St. Louis. That didn't stop him from going on to attend the third debate back then. But Trump seems to be veering between painting Biden as feeble on one hand and raising expectations for him on the other.

KEITH: And all of this is playing out as the former president stands trial in Manhattan. In the courthouse one day, then right back out on the campaign trail - since testimony is likely to wrap up this week, what have your takeaways been from this trial?

LIASSON: Well, I think my takeaways are that people are not really paying attention to the trial. The big question is what effect will a verdict have? We do see polls of Republican voters during the primaries saying that they wouldn't vote for Trump if he was convicted, but that's a hypothetical question. But what's interesting to me is Trump's strategy, you know? It has two parts. One is to delay, which he succeeded in all the other trials except for this one in New York. The other strategy is to undermine faith in the justice system, so if he's not acquitted or if he can't get a hung jury, he can convince enough voters that the trial was rigged, and he's the victim of a witch hunt.

KEITH: Alright. That is NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you, and I look forward to chatting with you again very soon on the NPR Politics Podcast.

LIASSON: Me, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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