President Trump and Joe Biden will clash tonight, albeit not on the same stage, or even the same channel.
Their dueling town halls on rival networks mark yet another first in this tumultuous race repeatedly disrupted by the pandemic. The televised events are taking the place of an originally scheduled second debate, which President Trump refused to participate in despite trailing significantly in the polls.
The president is in dire need of a strong and persuasive performance tonight. His support has continued to slide since the chaotic Sept. 29 debate with Biden, when Trump’s barrage of interruptions, insults and misinformation did not play well with the voters he needs to win over. The Democratic nominee’s lead has grown since then, with most polls showing him ahead of the president by double digits nationwide.
Biden now leads in nearly every major battleground state, and the former vice president is also threatening to overtake Trump in some states Trump won easily in 2016.
Trump, who checked into the hospital with COVID-19 days after his in-person face-off with Biden, backed out of the debate that had been scheduled for tonight when it was moved online as a public safety precaution. Instead, Trump will answer voter questions at an NBC town hall in Miami that starts at 5 p.m. Pacific. Biden will be doing the same at an ABC event in Philadelphia that starts at the same time.
The men will appear onstage as the virus continues to upend their campaigns. Several Trump advisors and staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus since Trump’s hospitalization, and the Biden campaign revealed Thursday that the former vice president and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, have recently flown to campaign events with people who later tested positive for the virus.
Harris canceled all campaign travel through Sunday as a precaution. But Biden has not canceled plans to travel to Michigan for a campaign event Friday.
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NBC has come under intense criticism for scheduling Thursday’s town hall with Trump at the same time as Biden’s ABC event, which was finalized a week earlier. The dueling nature of tonight’s broadcasts deprives viewers of the opportunity to watch both events live, and Trump is widely expected to draw a bigger audience.
More than 100 NBCUniversal stars and producers protested their network’s decision to hold the town hall at the same time as Biden’s in a letter to parent company Comcast, and media critics widely panned the network for the move.
“Having dueling town halls is bad for democracy — voters should be able to watch both and I don’t think many will. This will be good for Trump because people like to watch his unpredictability,” former NBC News star Katie Couric wrote on Twitter. “This is a bad decision.”
The pandemic, which has killed more than 217,000 people in the U.S., will probably be a central focus of questions voters ask both candidates. The continued efforts by the White House to downplay the virus and its effects, and the disorganized federal response to the surge of illness, has cost Trump key support, polls show.
But even after his own hospitalization, Trump has not changed course. He continues to hold large, packed rallies where attendees are not wearing masks or distancing, prompting public health experts to brand them “super-spreader” events.
As Trump continues to skid in the polls, other Republicans have urged him to take a more disciplined approach to the campaign — to tone down the conspiracy theories, misleading claims and mocking the mask-wearing of his opponent — and focus on the economy, an area in which a large number of voters have confidence in Trump. But the president has given no indication he will listen.
The president’s Twitter feed Thursday was full of rage, including an attack on the event he will headline. “I will be doing a major Fake @NBCNews Town Hall Forum,” Trump wrote. “I wonder if they’ll treat me as well as Sleepy Joe? They should.”
He told the crowd at a Thursday afternoon rally in Greenville, N.C., that he is being “set up,” and he mocked NBC News personalities. Trump also posted photos of packed crowds at the event, where a large share of the attendees were maskless.
The Trump town hall, which will take place outdoors in Miami, will run for one hour and be moderated by “Today” show co-host Savannah Guthrie. The Biden event will run 90 minutes and be hosted by George Stephanopoulos.
Not far from the Miami venue, supporters of both candidates had already lined the streets hours before the event was to start. One woman held a flag that said “Socialism Sucks. Trump 2020.”
Biden supporter Natasha Vidal, holding a megaphone, accused Trump of murder, citing the Americans who have died of COVID-19.
“Did you see how horrible Trump did in the first debate?” the 52-year-old asked. “Of course he doesn’t want to debate Joe Biden.”
Halper reported from Washington and Mejia from Miami.
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