© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Clinton Prepares For 'Difficult, Challenging' Debate With Trump


OK. The moment is almost here. On Monday night at Hofstra University on Long Island, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will appear on stage together for their first debate of three. This is a very close race of course, the stakes high for both candidates.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has been reporting on the challenges and opportunities for both candidates in the debates. Tomorrow, she will report on Donald Trump. Today, she has this report on Hillary Clinton.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: On her campaign plane the other day, Hillary Clinton told reporters that she's working hard to get ready.


HILLARY CLINTON: I'm doing my homework. Donald Trump is a self-proclaimed great debater who won every one of the Republican debates. So I take nothing for granted.

I think this will be a difficult, challenging debate, which is why I'm going to be thinking hard about what I need to present the American people.

LIASSON: To find out what she needs to present, I called two veterans of debate prep. A Republican...

BRETT O'DONNELL: I'm Brett O'Donnell. I have prepped presidential candidates for debates. President George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

LIASSON: And a Democrat...

SAMUEL POPKIN: I'm Sam Popkin. I played Ronald Reagan in the debates for Jimmy Carter. And I was involved in debate prep at least four times.

LIASSON: Both Popkin and O'Donnell agree, Clinton bears the burden of high expectations. She's been on the national stage for 40 years. But when Popkin hears how she's preparing - as she just put it, doing her homework - he gets nervous.

POPKIN: When I read about these giant debate books they're preparing for her, I cringe and worry. The smaller her debate book, the better off she'll be. Her problem is the first sentence, not the core of the argument.

LIASSON: Everyone knows Clinton is knowledgeable and competent, says Brett O'Donnell. She needs to use the debate to show she's also authentic and relatable.

O'DONNELL: Her biggest weakness is likability. And this is a tough tightrope, particularly for a female candidate. Because gender communication research tells us that men, when they are aggressive, are received pretty positively. When women are overly aggressive, they tend to be received negatively.

LIASSON: So says O'Donnell, Clinton needs to stay on offense, but...

O'DONNELL: Offense for her is a little bit different. It is showing command of issues, being calm and being able to rebut his attacks effectively without getting angry, and without getting down in the mud with him.

LIASSON: Clinton supporters have been fuming about a double standard, that Donald Trump, as president Obama said recently, is graded on a curve. But, says O'Donnell, there's nothing Clinton can do about that.

O'DONNELL: It's unfair. But unfortunately right now, that's the way culture approaches these things. You know, I know that the Clinton campaign complained about the Commander-In-Chief Forum, for being criticized for her not smiling. You know, it's a small thing, but it's an important thing. She's got to learn to look calm, collected and to be enjoying the debate experience, even though deep down she might not be.

LIASSON: That's because people like a happy warrior.

The other challenge for the candidates is to understand what a debate is and is not. Presidential debates are not a forum to score policy points, which Clinton can be very good at.

They're actually a contest of demeanor and character. And they're structured as a series of set pieces where candidates deliver many stump speeches, while trying to throw each other off their game plans. Sam Popkin...

POPKIN: I think her biggest challenge is going to be telegraphing clean, simple statements to the audience, instead of litigating and beating Donald Trump on facts and details in a court of law.

LIASSON: Even though debates rarely determine the outcome of presidential elections, they do make a difference. And in a tight race like this one, says O'Donnell, they will matter a lot.

O'DONNELL: You can't win an election in a debate, but you can lose one. And they certainly can influence momentum in the race.

These will be the most watched debates in the history of televised presidential debates, in my opinion. So they'll have a huge influence over the narrative of the campaign.

LIASSON: The debates are the last best chance both candidates have to change the dynamic of the race. As many as 100 million people are expected to be watching.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.