WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump publicly insists he doesn't rehearse for debates, claiming recently that he is preparing for his first debate on Tuesday in Cleveland with Democratic nominee Joe Biden "just by doing what I'm doing."
But behind the scenes, Trump is quietly studying videotapes of Biden's debate performances in 2008 and 2012 to look for weakness or vulnerabilities he can exploit. He is batting around attack lines with aides, and not holding a more formal mock debate or sessions devoted to memorizing facts and data points.
For his part, Biden is huddling with a small group of advisers in Wilmington, Del. The former vice president plans to attack Trump's leadership as unsteady, challenge the president's repeated falsehoods, and contrast his own experience in a crisis.
In a year upended by a deadly pandemic, a severe recession, a climate crisis in the West and social unrest, the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the brewing battle to fill her seat has thrust two more pivotal issues - healthcare and abortion - to the fore a week before the two candidates go toe to toe for the first of three televised debates.
The Sept. 29 face-off will be moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace and will feature 15-minute segments on six topics: the Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, race and policing, election integrity and both candidates' records.
Trump's team sees the 90-minute debate as a make-or-break opportunity to save his reelection campaign, which is down in the polls and lagging in cash as early voting begins in several states.
Trump's aides believe his near-daily bantering with White House reporters put him on a stronger footing to react in a live, unscripted setting than Biden, who takes questions from reporters as he travels but hasn't held a full news conference in months.
Biden's camp has downplayed the significance of the debates, noting that his lead in national polls, now about 6.5 percentage points, has changed little since the pandemic erupted last spring.
Polls show widespread dissatisfaction with Trump's handling of the crisis, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans. Democrats believe the deadly virus will continue to overshadow all other issues in the debates and the race.
"More than any time in my lifetime, I think that a clever line or a cute comeback in the debate is not going to be as important as the next day, when you have to do video school with your kid or you have to find a job," said Robert Barnett, who has helped Democratic candidates rehearse for debates in every election since 1976, though he's not working with Biden's team this year.