Debate of the Century: 5 Things Donald Trump Needs to Do, 5 Things Hillary Clinton Needs to Do


In what is shaping up to be one of the most highly anticipated presidential debates in history, Donald Trump is set to take the stage at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday night, where the Republican presidential nominee will look to build on polling gains he made earlier this month.

WATCH LIVE ON BCNN3.TV: First Presidential Debate Between Hillary Clinton & Donald Trump (Mon, Sept. 26, 2016 @ 9pm EST)

Here are five things Trump will need to do in the first of three general election presidential debates:

1. Meet the presidential threshold

Trump has never been elected to public office, and numerous voters have questioned whether the outspoken Manhattan real estate mogul has the depth and temperament for the job. Trump must use the first debate to demonstrate he has the knowledge and steadiness to make him a plausible president, and must do so in the face of a verbal onslaught by Clinton. The Republican candidate also needs to keep his cool — no viral moments of temper — and avoid a moment like the one at a GOP primary debate in which he displayed ignorance of the term “nuclear triad.”

2. Play good defense

The Republican candidate will no doubt be called upon to explain any number of statements or actions. It could be his sudden reversal on “birther-ism,” the idea that President Obama was born in another country. It could be questionable spending by the Trump Foundation. It could his alleged ties to Russia. It could be various comments about women and Muslims or his refusal to release tax returns. It could be all of the above. As Clinton and aides accuse him of being an unprincipled liar, Trump’s performance could be decided by how he handles these kinds of questions.

3. Stay on the attack

Trump must somehow impeach Clinton’s qualifications for the presidency. In seeking his first elected office, Trump will argue that the former first lady, U.S. senator, and secretary of State is the embodiment of a failed political establishment and that he is the true candidate of change. Yet Clinton, a national political figure for more than a quarter-century, also has more knowledge of the issues, and that creates a vulnerability for Trump. The New York businessman plans to argue that Clinton may have experience but has made “bad decisions” throughout her career.

4. Manage a one-on-one debate

During the Republican primaries, Trump shared the debate stage with at least three other GOP rivals. This will be his first one-on-one debate, and he will likely get rougher treatment that he did during some of those GOP encounters. The less populated stage in a 90-minute debate increases the physical and mental demands on both candidates. Trump is going to have to talk for longer stretches of time.

5. Effectively handle the gender dynamic

Trump will be the first major party presidential nominee to debate a female opponent, and that fact alone will influence his strategy and approach. The Republican nominee must try to avoid appearing sexist, which, of course, he hasn’t always been successful at during the 2016 campaign. During a 2000 race for a U.S. Senate seat in New York, Clinton rival Rick Lazio crossed the stage to confront her. The move backfired with voters who criticized Lazio for getting into Clinton’s personal space. Some Republicans accused Trump of bullying rivals during GOP debates; that will be tougher to do against a single, female rival.

Here are five things Clinton needs to do:

1. Play offense

With polls showing a tightening race, the Democratic nominee has little choice but to go on the offensive. “There’s a whole basket of issues she can really use in this debate,” said Maria Cardona, a former senior adviser to Clinton’s 2008 campaign. She cited Trump’s proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, his call for deporting undocumented immigrants who aren’t criminals and the fact that he has drawn support from white supremacists like David Duke. Clinton also needs to excite base voters by showing she can land some punches.

2. Be more likable

With unfavorable ratings similar to Trump’s, It may be Clinton’s final chance to change voters’ perceptions of her.

Debates can be defined by single moments, meaning she must be mindful of her mannerisms, as Gore learned in 2000 when he sighed and rolled his eyes as then-Texas governor George W. Bush spoke. “Trump has an uncanny ability to read the person on the other side of the table,” said New York City real estate developer Peter Kalikow, who’s worked alongside Trump in Manhattan. “If she arrogantly dismisses him as bluster she is making a strategic mistake.”

The same goes for when it’s her turn on the hot seat. For instance, the former secretary of State thinks she’s been asked and answered every possible question about her private email server. She’ll get more — and she must gamely answer them while showing a sense of humor that’s not snarky.

3. Outline a positive vision

Clinton’s campaign is struggling to reassemble President Obama’s successful coalition that relied on strong turnout from young voters and African Americans. While Clinton holds a huge advantage over Trump among blacks (83 points, according to a recent New York Times survey), that doesn’t predict turnout, which could be lower than it was in 2008 and 2012.

To that end, the campaign has been trying to emphasize her biography, in particular her work on behalf of children and families since her first job out of law school working for the Children’s Defense Fund. She needs to take opportunities at the debate to highlight this experience, as well as policy proposals on student debt relief and criminal justice reform — and contrast them with Trump’s.

4. Go off script

One of the most-oft repeated criticisms of Hillary Clinton is that she’s too scripted. Going against an unpredictable figure like Trump increases the potential she’ll be forced to go off script. That may not be a bad thing. In fact, her campaign has a video crew following her to capture such moments, which they believe are the most effective ways to humanize her.

It was in a 2008 debate when the moderator asked her about her likability problem that she replied: “Well, that hurts my feelings.” Her competitor, then-senator Barack Obama, replied: “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” It was one of her best moments and one of his worst.

5. Have a compelling answer about Iraq and Syria

Voters’ top concerns about Clinton are her judgment over U.S. policy in Iraq, Syria and Libya followed by her use of a private email server while secretary of State, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

It’s also the focal point of Trump’s chief critique of her, that she has “bad judgment.” Clinton needs to give American voters a straightforward explanation of what she learned from her vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq and how this experience will inform her policy approach to the Middle East going forward.