A Missed Moment for Trump? Second Debate Suggests What Might Have Been

    President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. left Nashville on Friday to begin the final chapter of the campaign after a debate in which both men cleared the relatively low bar of expectations. Mr. Biden dispelled any notion that he was too old to be president and Mr. Trump, after a loud and chaotic first debate, was a relatively restrained figure, exhibiting discipline as he prosecuted a case against Mr. Biden.

    But with polls showing the president struggling against Mr. Biden and the election less than two weeks away, Mr. Trump had more at stake. And should Mr. Trump lose on Election Day, he may long regret that he failed to muster the kind of performance he showed the nation on Thursday at that pivotal first debate in September, or that he abruptly canceled what would have been a third encounter between the two men.

    For Republicans, that what-might-have-been scenario struck home as they watched Mr. Biden provide Mr. Trump an opening in the final moments of the debate with remarks about the oil industry.

    “If Trump had acted this way in the first debate, he would have had the space to be able to see how effective the professional pol line of attack could have been, and then focused on that for the last four weeks,” said Chris Lehane, a Democrat and senior adviser to Vice President Al Gore, referring to Mr. Trump’s efforts to portray Mr. Biden as an ineffective Washington insider.

    Mike Murphy, a Republican consultant and critic of Mr. Trump, said the president had turned in a stronger debate performance, but it was almost certainly too little and too late. “Slightly better maybe — but still losing,” he said. “Country has wanted to fire Trump for a while.”

    The second and final debate was fought, by most accounts, to a relative draw. But it set the contours for this homestretch, as Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden hurtled into the final days of the 2020 campaign, taking their closing arguments from the prime-time stage to critical states like Florida for the Republican incumbent and Pennsylvania for the Democratic nominee.

    And each man left Nashville able to draw on the missteps of his opponent.

    Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

    For Mr. Trump, it was Mr. Biden’s acknowledgment that he wanted the nation to “transition from the oil industry.” For Mr. Biden, it was Mr. Trump’s assertion that Americans were “learning to live with the virus” at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is hitting record numbers across the nation.

    Mr. Biden woke up to a goading “Question of the Day for Joe Biden” from the Trump campaign, sent in an email to reporters, that signaled how Republicans would like to frame the case against Mr. Biden in states like Pennsylvania in the final days. “Are you writing off all energy-producing states since you again pledged to end the oil industry and destroy fossil fuels?”

    Mr. Trump returned to that point as he campaigned at The Villages retirement home in Florida. “I said whoa, do you want to get rid of oil and gas?” the president said. “Is that — yeah, we want to phase it out. I said thank you, Texas, are you watching? Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Ohio, are you watching?’’

    And Mr. Biden gave a speech in Delaware in which he assailed Mr. Trump for his handling of the pandemic, which polls suggest has turned many Americans against the president.

    “President Trump said he found a cure,” Mr. Biden said, drawing on the president’s remarks from the night before. “But let me tell you, we have 1,000 people dying every day.”

    Republicans, looking for encouragement in the face of discouraging polls, said they hoped the boisterous and crowded rallies that the president is embarking on in battlegrounds from Wisconsin to North Carolina this weekend, against the urging of health care officials, would offer a powerful contrast with Mr. Biden and translate into enthusiasm and end-of-campaign voter turnout.

    “The Biden beat-the-clock strategy is running out of steam, and the contrast with Trump’s rallies and energy is remarkable,” said Scott Reed, who was campaign manager for Bob Dole when he ran for president in 1996. “Enthusiasm matters down the homestretch, and this race is far from over.”

    Even before their final debate, Mr. Biden had been fending off charges that he supported a ban on fracking, a potentially damning line of attack in states like Pennsylvania. He said at the debate that he supported only a ban on fracking on federally owned land, a distinction that might have been lost in the tumult of the closing moments.

    Mr. Biden is planning two stops in Pennsylvania on Saturday, appearances that were planned before the debate but that now give him the opportunity to address any damage he might have done with his comments on fossil fuels.

    Some Democrats said that while his remarks were most likely too late to make a major difference, this could prompt the Biden campaign to reassess what had already seemed to be a long-shot bid to capture Texas, a major oil-producing state.

    Marla Romash, a Democratic political consultant who served as communications director for Mr. Gore, said that in this environment, even a strong performance by Mr. Trump would not help him. “There is so much Trump, his campaign, and his administration have done wrong, the debates pale in comparison,” she said.

    Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

    Mr. Trump was, by conventional standards, hardly the model of a poised presidential debater. He devoted much of an answer about the pandemic to criticizing Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the federal infectious disease expert who has become a source of comfort for many Americans, as Mr. Biden watched, looking slightly baffled. His attacks on Mr. Biden asserting corruption by his son Hunter were often framed in the kind of conspiratorial shorthand that might be familiar to viewers of Fox News but were very likely hard to follow for most Americans.

    But he displayed a surgical discipline at times in confronting Mr. Biden and created material to work with as he headed into these final days.

    Mr. Trump grinned when Mr. Biden stumbled into his remark about the oil industry, calling it out for voters in Pennsylvania, a state that Mr. Trump won last time and that polls show Mr. Biden with a reasonable, but not overwhelming, lead in now. Mr. Trump can win re-election without Pennsylvania, but it will not be easy.

    Mr. Trump’s assertion that he was the best president on civil rights since Abraham Lincoln, as he attacked Mr. Biden for sponsoring the tough 1994 crime bill, no doubt led to eye-rolling in Democratic circles, and even Republicans say it is belied by his record and rhetoric as president.

    But polls show that Mr. Trump is doing as well or slightly better among Black and Latino voters than he did against Hillary Clinton. Even marginal success in winning over voters of color, or encouraging some of them to stay home, could make a difference in tightly contested battleground states like North Carolina.

    “He did himself some good,” Peggy Noonan, who was a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, wrote in her column in The Wall Street Journal. “He wasn’t a belligerent nut. He held himself together, controlled himself, presented opening remarks that made sense. He won, not a dazzling win but a win that kept him in the game.’’

    The effectiveness of the president’s performance, though, was undercut by two factors. The first is the lateness of the hour; almost 50 million have already voted, and polls suggest that the vast majority of Americans have made up their minds and will not change them, debate or not.

    The second is Mr. Biden.

    Until those last faltering moments, he was, even Republicans said, a sharper and more engaged debater than he has been at any other time this year. His aggressive performance — in which he frequently put Mr. Trump on the defensive, no small feat — was reminiscent of the pugnacious performance he displayed against Paul D. Ryan, the former House Republican leader, in the 2012 vice-presidential debate.

    But this was one debate where the president set the bar not only for himself, with his much-criticized performance at the first debate, but also for Mr. Biden, whom he had repeatedly belittled as feeble and old.

    “Neither of the two were at a level even remotely approaching how presidential candidates typically perform because the whole expectations baseline is now so low,” Mr. Lehane said. “Not exactly Lincoln-Douglas or even Obama-Romney. One guy showed he was not a thug for about 75 minutes out of 90 minutes. And the other guy showed he was not senile.”


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