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Biden's debate game plan? Keep cool and win

The Hill logo The Hill 9/29/2020 Max Greenwood and Amie Parnes
a man wearing a suit and tie: Biden's debate game plan? Keep cool and win © Getty Images Biden's debate game plan? Keep cool and win

Allies to former Vice President Joe Biden say he can win the debate on Tuesday night if he can maintain his composure and not fall into traps set by President Trump.

The allies who are close to the campaign said Biden believes Trump will try to trip up the Democratic nominee by seeking to throw him off course with personal attacks.

If Biden can keep his cool, the Biden camp thinks it will prevail in the debate.

"If the VP doesn't get angry and just makes Trump look like he's a crazy person, it's a win," said one longtime ally close to the campaign. "We can't just get into a back and forth fact-checking mission."

Behind the scenes, however, Biden's campaign and the Democratic National Committee are preparing a fact-checking operation to respond to Trump on Tuesday night, launching a Twitter account intended to fact-check the debate in real time.

The ally said Biden needs to channel his debate performance with Sarah Palin in 2008. At the same time, allies expect Tuesday night's debate to be the polar opposite of Biden's 2012 debate with Paul Ryan, the former Republican vice presidential nominee.

"He needs to be more Biden '08 vs. Palin and less Biden '12 vs. Ryan... Ryan played fair," the ally said. "Trump obviously won't."

A top Democratic fundraiser said Biden needs to remain on offense for much of the debate.

"If he's on defense and constantly responding to Trump, he is losing," the fundraiser said.

The way to do that, the fundraiser said, is to keep the emphasis on the COVID-19 pandemic, which "is something every single American can relate to."

"If he holds him to the fire, he won't need to do much else," the fundraiser said.

Guests of Biden point to his planned pandemic emphasis. Kristin Urquiza, a San Francisco woman whose father died of COVID-19, will attend the debate as one of Biden's guests.

They also telegraphed plans to hit Trump over his tax history after a New York Times investigation published this week revealed that Trump paid just $750 in federal income tax in both 2016 and 2017 and paid no taxes in 10 of the 15 previous years.

In an apparent effort to put pressure on Trump ahead of the debate, Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) released their 2019 tax returns.

Trump did not make his own tax returns public when he first ran for the White House in 2016 and has still refused to do so.

"Trump's tax returns and what we learned from that reporting I think reinforces what we already knew about Donald Trump which is that he looks down on working people," Kate Bedingfield, Biden's deputy campaign manager and communications director, told reporters on a conference call on Tuesday ahead of the debate.

"It reinforces how much of a choice there is in this campaign between Scranton and Park Avenue," she added, echoing a line that Biden has used frequently in recent days to hammer Trump as out-of-touch with working-class Americans.

Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Biden's campaign, said that the former vice president has no plans to fact-check Trump on stage Tuesday night, putting it on the moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, to call the president out on false or misleading statements.

"I want to be very clear on one thing ... it is not Joe Biden's job in this debate to fact-check Donald Trump," Sanders said. "Again, it is not Joe Biden's job in this debate. That's the moderator's job."

Sanders said that Biden's focus would be on "speaking directly to the American people."

Democratic strategist Joel Payne predicted that the first presidential debate is typically "difficult" for incumbent presidents. He pointed to former President Obama's debate against then-Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.

"He struggled in that first debate because he had to readjust to the idea of being challenged by an equal on stage," Payne said. "It would not surprise me if the same phenomenon emerged in this first debate."

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