WASHINGTON — Republicans are praising Hillary Clinton as the most skilled and experienced politician ever to stand behind a podium. Democrats note Donald Trump, a former reality star, is especially savvy on television.
Despite such compliments, the expectations game is in full swing ahead of the first crucial debate between Clinton and Trump — a clash that will be watched by millions around the world and could prove decisive in determining the winner in November.
In the run-up to the debate, both sides are turning to the age-old practice of highlighting the strengths of their competitor in an effort to minimize the impact of their own flaws.
The Clinton campaign is trying to shape the battlefield by pointing out that Trump will be in his element on Monday night.
“For all his lack of substance, Trump’s showmanship, as ex-reality TV star, makes him a formidable debate foe. He thrashed his rivals in GOP debates,” Brian Fallon, Clinton’s national press secretary, tweeted in August.
By that reasoning, anything less than a thrashing for Clinton will be spun as a win. At the same time, the Trump campaign is working hard to raise the stakes for Clinton, arguing that his recently rising polls mean she needs a game changer.
“Given her extensive experience debating, high level of preparation, and scripted nature, Clinton’s campaign no doubt views Monday night as the best opportunity to alter the trajectory of the race,” said Trump communications director Jason Miller in a memo this week.
Miller said that Clinton had “more debates under her belt than almost any presidential candidate in history.”
Top Republican National Committee strategist Sean Spicer also weighed in, noting that “Clinton has been at it since she’s been on the debate team in high school.”
And both sides are trying to get into their opponent’s head. The Clinton campaign invited Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks and a prominent Trump critic, to sit in the front row at the debate. Trump responded Saturday with a threat to bring Gennifer Flowers, with whom Bill Clinton admitted to having a sexual relationship decades ago, to the event.
Flowers has said she is planning to come to the Monday debate, but it is unclear if the Trump campaign is planning on inviting her.
While representatives of Flowers have not responded to CNN’s inquiries, a tweet from her account had earlier said: “Hi Donald. You know I’m in your corner and will definitely be at the debate” and she has now told some other media she is planning on attending.
What is really going on in this period of embellishment is an effort to shape the media coverage of a debate — often as important in deciding how a showdown shapes the campaign as what the candidates say. If a candidate is predicted to struggle in a debate but ultimately vaults over the low bar, surrogates and analysts will proclaim an upset win.
Days of coded warnings are also used to put moderators on notice that their questions, cross examinations and comments will be parsed mercilessly for bias and that they will become the story if they don’t play ball.
Clinton Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters this week that the campaign’s biggest worry is whether expectations for Trump are so low that he can’t help but exceed them.
“I think that my biggest concern is … that people accommodate their questions to suit the candidate in front of them and that is what has happened to Trump in the past,” she said.
Palmieri’s comments were a veiled warning to the moderator of the first debate, Lester Holt, that he must hold Clinton and Trump accountable to the same standards of questioning. Holt’s NBC colleague, Matt Lauer, was slammed by Clinton supporters who thought he gave Trump an easier ride than the former secretary of state at a forum earlier this month.
Trump has argued Democratic complaints about Lauer were meant as a warning to Holt.
“In trying to hit Matt, they are trying to game the system, game the ref,” Trump said in North Carolina this week.
“But I think Lester will be very fair,” Trump said. “But a lot of people will be watching to see if that is true.”