Grading on a curve, political experts said President Trump did not hurt himself. But they said neither did Joe Biden, and that may be all that matters so late in the game.
By Jeremy W. Peters and Isabella Grullón Paz
Like other presidents who have slipped in the polls after a widely panned first debate, President Trump was the beneficiary of low expectations on Thursday night in the final debate before the election, a more civil and lower-decibel affair than the last.
But his effort to demonstrate greater discipline was most likely too little, too late to deliver the jolt to the race that he needs to lift his chances for re-election, some of the nation’s top political strategists and other observers said.
Where some saw hope for Mr. Trump, others saw the same candidate facing the same challenging campaign dynamics.
“Nothing changed,” Matthew Dowd, a former top aide to President George W. Bush, said on ABC News. “He wasn’t a bull in a china shop. That doesn’t mean he won the debate.”
Though Mr. Trump needed some kind of breakthrough to overcome former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s lead in the polls, Mr. Dowd said later that he did not see that happen during the course of the 90-minute encounter. “Biden had a lead going in and has a lead leaving,” he wrote on Twitter.
The size of Mr. Biden’s lead, double digits in some national polls, is so large that any good Mr. Trump did to his campaign was probably limited by Mr. Biden’s even performance. “Biden did not do a face plant,” said Charlie Cook, the editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “That is all he needed to do.”
Ahead of the debate, many analysts saw parallels between Mr. Trump’s underdog position and the high stakes President Barack Obama faced before his second debate in 2012, when he delivered sharper and more forceful rebuttals to Mitt Romney than he had before, and soon rebounded in the polls.
Certainly, many of Mr. Trump’s defenders sought to portray his performance that way on Thursday. Many claimed that he had triumphed over Mr. Biden, seizing on the former vice president’s statement about phasing out fossil fuel use as a devastating misstep.
Some praised the president merely for not interrupting. “Trump’s self-control is very impressive right now,” said Allie Beth Stuckey, a conservative writer and podcast host.
And others claimed that Mr. Biden had reinforced stereotypes of him as a career politician who inspires little passion.
David Brody, the chief political analyst for the Christian Broadcasting Network, said on Twitter that the president “has effectively hammered home a very simple theme tonight and that is this: ‘what have you done Joe during all your time in DC? You’re all talk no action.’”
Mr. Brody concluded, “That message will have traction.”
But it was not certain that the evening would have much effect on a race in which few undecided voters remain. Nor was it clear that the debate did anything other than reaffirm what most people already felt about both men.
Here is what observers from across the political spectrum said.
Mr. Trump’s supporters believed they had the moment that every campaign dreams of in a debate: those 20 or so seconds when your opponent makes a gaffe that can be spliced into an attack ad that can run repeatedly over the final stretch of the race.
It was not clear, however, that this is what Mr. Trump had after Mr. Biden challenged the president to produce video proving that he had said he would ban fracking, and then expressed support for phasing out fossil fuels and ending federal subsidies for oil companies.
“I’m not sure much is going to change or can at this point in the race, in this year, but if anything were to, that oil line is the one that will haunt him,” said Mary Katharine Ham, a conservative analyst.
Republicans quickly began circulating one such video showing Mr. Biden describing what he would do about fracking, saying, “We would make sure it’s eliminated.” The former vice president has since said repeatedly he does not support ending the practice, a major source of jobs.
“Biden thinks PA is stupid,” said Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union.
Republican strategists also saw something to like in Mr. Trump’s response on how he plans to handle the growing number of coronavirus cases across the country, revealing the deep divide between many conservative supporters of the president, who want a generally more hands-off approach from the government, and most other Americans, who believe in taking steps such as mandating mask-wearing in public.
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