S President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden prepare for their first debate in the 2020 presidential election.
Tuesday night’s debate provides a massive platform for Mr Trump and Mr Biden to outline their completely different visions for a country facing multiple crises, including protests against racial justice and a pandemic that killed more than 200,000 Americans and millions of jobs were cost.
The health emergency has turned the usual features of a presidential campaign on their heads and made the debate more prominent.
In the midst of intense political polarization, however, there are comparatively few indecisive voters left who raise questions as to how or whether the debate could shape a race that has been defined by its bitterness and, at least so far, its stability.
Mr Biden will take the Cleveland stage and star in the polls – meaningfully in the national polls, closer to the battlefield states – but have questions about his turnaround in the spotlight, especially given Mr Trump’s withered attacks.
And Mr Trump, who has only 35 days to change the course of the race, will arguably have his best chance of campaigning as an election election rather than a referendum on how to deal with a virus that is killing more people in America has than any other nation.
The president’s handling of coronavirus is likely to dominate much of the discussion.
The strength of the pandemic will be felt as the candidate podiums are far apart and the traditional opening handshake is canceled.
And the debate could be shaped by other recent moments: the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which enabled Mr Trump to appoint a conservative lawyer to replace a liberal voice and reshape the Supreme Court for generations, and the Revelations about Mr. Trump’s long-running hidden tax history, including the fact that he only paid $ 750 a year in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017, and nothing in many other years.
However, the implications of the debate – or the two following over the coming weeks – remain unclear.
The tumult of 2020 is hard to exaggerate: Covid-19 has rewritten the rules of everyday life; Schools and businesses are closed; and protests against racial justice have swept the nation after a series of high-profile police murders of blacks.
Despite the upheaval, the presidential race has remained largely unchanged since Mr Biden took control of the Democratic field in March.
The nation has resented Mr Trump’s handling of the pandemic, and while his support base has remained largely unchanged, he has found defects in older and female voters, especially in the suburbs, and made his way to 270 electoral college votes, despite him is still sustainable has shrunk.
According to polls, there are fewer indecisive voters left than at this point in the 2016 campaign.
And several high-profile debates in the past elections, which were considered landmark moments at the time, ultimately had little lasting effect.
Four years ago, Democrat Hillary Clinton was widely seen as better than Trump in her three debates, but she lost in November.
In 2012, Mitt Romney shattered Barack Obama at their first meeting, only to stall in the rematch.
But some debates were important: most notably, a turning point in the 1960 race was when John F. Kennedy was perceived – at least by television viewers – as being overtaken by Richard Nixon.
And in 1980, Ronald Reagan was able to reassure nervous voters that he had a presidential temperament when he delivered a winning performance against reigning Jimmy Carter.
While both sides await a heated debate between two men who dislike each other, the Biden campaign has downplayed the importance of the night and believes the pandemic and troubled economy will outweigh the debate gaffe or the zinger.
Conversely, the Trump campaign has skyrocketed the scale of the duel and believes it will be a moment for the President to harm Mr Biden and rewrite the race.
Mr Trump had told advisors that he was preparing a widespread assault on Mr Biden, claiming that the former senator’s 47 years in Washington had disconnected him and that his family, namely his son Hunter, had benefited from corruption.
The president also reiterated his call on Monday for Mr Biden to take some form of drug test, claiming with no evidence that the Democratic candidate was somehow using a performance enhancer.
While Mr Trump’s campaign lately has praised Mr Biden’s debating skills, the president has vividly portrayed his opponent as unfit for work, which may allow Mr Biden to do well as long as he avoids a major trip.
“This guy has no idea. He doesn’t know where the hell he is,” Trump said recently, comparing the debate to a boxing match and pointing to his head.
“To win games you need that up here. This probably wins 50% of that. This is not the best time for Joe. “
But Mr Trump – never a high-profile debater despite having a phenomenal presence on stage – has made little formal preparation, which could mean falling into his own trap.
Mr Biden’s performance during the main debates has been mixed and some Democrats have been nervous about how he will fare in an unscripted setting.
But his team views the night as a moment to shed light on Mr Trump’s mistakes regarding the pandemic and the economy. The former vice president acts as the “fact checker on the ground” preparing for the impending onslaught.
“You will be mostly personal,” said Biden.
“It’s the only thing he can do. He doesn’t know how to discuss the facts because he’s not that smart. He doesn’t know that many facts.”