The first debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is likely to focus on the president’s tax returns and his handling of the pandemic © Getty Images, Reuters, AP

Donald Trump and Joe Biden will share the stage on Tuesday night in a live debate in Cleveland, Ohio — the first of three head-to-head matchups before November’s presidential election. 

Presidential debates have historically been high-stakes events. Four years ago, more than 80m Americans watched Mr Trump’s first encounter against Hillary Clinton. This year, the Trump-Biden contest could be more important, given that coronavirus has limited the candidates’ ability to campaign in person.

While most voters have made up their minds — Americans in many states have started voting early by mail or in person — the candidates will make their case to those still on the fence.

Mr Trump, 74, has questioned Mr Biden’s fitness for office, even calling for the 77-year-old former vice-president to take a drug test. Mr Biden, who can be prone to gaffes and long-winded answers, will need to push back with a focused performance.

At the same time, the president will be vulnerable to attacks on his record in the White House and before he took office. A New York Times report at the weekend revealed the president paid just $750 of federal income tax in 2016 and 2017.

The 90-minute debate, which starts at 9pm eastern time on Tuesday, will be moderated by Chris Wallace, a longtime Fox News anchor. Here are five things to watch out for.

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Supreme Court

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death jolted the campaign after the president made it clear that he intended to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court as soon as possible.

Mr Trump at the weekend named Amy Coney Barrett, a 48-year-old federal judge and protégé of the late conservative justice Antonin Scalia, as his pick.

While Judge Barrett’s appointment was seen as a victory for Mr Trump’s conservative base, and her confirmation is all but certain in the Republican-controlled Senate, Democrats hope to use her nomination to win over wavering voters.

Mr Biden has so far focused his attacks on the threat that Judge Barrett poses to the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare”, which protects Americans from being denied health insurance because of pre-existing conditions. The Supreme Court is set to hear a Republican-led case seeking to scrap the ACA just days after November’s election.

Expect Mr Biden to also accuse Mr Trump of being a hypocrite by nominating Judge Barrett so close to the election. In 2016, the Republican-controlled Senate refused to consider Mr Obama’s nominee when Scalia died.

Family matters

Mr Trump has never been known to pull his punches, and the Biden campaign has been bracing itself for an onslaught of personal attacks on Tuesday. 

The president is reportedly keen to focus on the Democrat’s son, Hunter Biden, a recovered drug addict whose overseas business dealings featured heavily in last year’s impeachment probe. Mr Trump asked the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on Hunter Biden’s dealings in the country, a move Democrats said was abuse of power.

The former vice-president is known to be fiercely defensive of his family, and has on occasion snapped at opponents who criticise them. His campaign team is hoping he can keep his cool on Tuesday.

Line chart showing how Trump and Biden are doing in the US national polls


Mr Biden has tried to focus the campaign on Mr Trump’s handling of the pandemic. A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll found that 58 per cent of Americans disapprove of the president’s leadership in the crisis, which is one of the main reasons Mr Biden holds a 10-point lead nationally, according to the survey.

Mr Trump has attempted to fight back, blaming the spread of the virus on China and claiming his administration has done an unparalleled job of curbing the virus. Contradicting most medical experts, the president has said a vaccine is likely to be released before the election, with enough doses to inoculate every American by April.

Expect Mr Biden to hit the president over his lack of empathy and accuse him of politicising the vaccine. Mr Trump might target Mr Biden over his call for a national mask mandate — a policy the president claims impinges on personal freedoms. 

Law and order

After the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police and subsequent protests, Mr Trump’s campaign has homed in on the theme of law and order, claiming a Biden presidency would destroy America’s suburbs and throw the country into violent chaos.

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The president has repeatedly criticised local Democrats’ handling of protests that have turned violent in places such as Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon.

Mr Trump’s campaign has also claimed Mr Biden’s campaign is a Trojan horse for the “radical left” who would push forward extreme policies such as defunding the police.

Mr Biden has condemned the looting and violence, insisted he would not defund the police and attacked the president for not doing more to defend people of colour. Both are likely to stick to their earlier attacks, as Mr Trump attempts to corner Mr Biden into defending the more violent aspects of the protests.

Election integrity 

Mr Trump has repeatedly refused to say he will accept the results of the November election or commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses.

Four years ago, when he was first asked the question by Mr Wallace, Mr Trump also refused to give a firm answer. He is likely to stick to his guns, claiming that he cannot lose the election unless there is mass voting fraud. His own FBI director and other election experts have dismissed the idea that voting fraud could swing the election.

Mr Biden is likely to push back with his own arguments in favour of mail-in voting, particularly during the pandemic. 

Mr Biden is likely to repeat his pledge to accept the result of the final vote once all the ballots have been counted. However, the Democratic candidate has also cast doubts upon the electoral process, saying the president is indirectly trying to “steal” the election.

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