Op-Ed: Which Trump will show up to the debate?



This week’s debate is tailor-made for Donald Trump to cement his place as the frontrunner of the 2024 presidential race. He’s leading in the polls and in Vegas, voters don’t seem to care that he was convicted of 34 felonies, and several debate rules play to his extemporaneous nature.

All he has to do now is not screw it up.

The first way he can capitalize on his momentum is by making the debate about Biden and his policies. Trump should put the president on defense about rampant inflation and economic fear, issues which are killing the incumbent’s support among young, Black, and Hispanic voters. Trump can also score points on immigration – the most important issue to 27% of voters – by pointing to three years of record-breaking border crossings and Biden’s recent decision to “parole in place” hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants. And on foreign affairs, he can ask why the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal and conflicts in Ukraine and Israel should give voters confidence in America’s role in the world.

Second, Trump needs to remind Americans about what life was like pre-pandemic, with record-low unemployment – including among Blacks – a more secure border, and fewer major world conflicts. With more Americans saying in April 2024 than they did in April 2020 that the country is trending in the wrong direction, this will reinforce the message that he is the steady hand voters want to see.

Lastly, and most importantly, Trump needs to overcome the parts of his personality that rub independent voters the wrong way. His spectacularly unscripted communication style attracts support from many unlikely voter segments, but he has a tendency to focus on his own grievances when many people are looking for solutions to their problems, not his. For example, bromides about “revenge” like he shared with Dr. Phil earlier this month will not land well with voters whose biggest concerns are the border, their stretched dollars, and whether World War III is on the horizon.

Trump and his surrogates have been making many of these points for months. But the debate is the first time the candidates will be side-by-side without assistance from aides or notes to help stay on message. While Trump often flourishes in this kind of environment, he has to be careful that his aggressive demeanor doesn’t alienate voters as it did in 2020, when pandemic-rattled voters preferred Biden’s carefully-crafted brand of calm and competent leadership.

Four years later, the “competence” narrative is on the other foot, and so is the electoral advantage. The small-but-influential Never Trumpers of 2020 are the pro-Palestinian protesters in key states who are threatening to withhold support in 2024. The “hold the nose and vote for him” Democrats who put Biden in the White House will have to overcome a fired-up Republican base that is buoyed by critics like Chris Sununu and Nikki Haley, who have gotten on the Trump train. And tech and finance titans like Shaun Maguire, Elon Musk, and Bill Ackman are throwing their support and money behind Trump’s third run for the Oval Office.

Trump won’t know what Jake Tapper and Dana Bash intend to ask him until they do. But he can win the night with a disciplined message about being the steady hand during tough times, and by making the debate about the man on the other side of the stage.

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