President Donald Trump turned in the restrained and consistent performance his advisers said he needed in his final debate with Democratic challenger Joe Biden, but it was unlikely to alter the US presidential race in any fundamental way.
With just 11 days to go before the Nov 3 election, Trump still faces the same fundamental problem: A country battered by the coronavirus, with cases spiking anew, and an economy that has yet to fully rebound from the pandemic.
Once again, the Republican president had no real counter to Biden’s criticism of his handling of the virus that has killed more than 221,000 Americans other than to say that the nation is “turning the corner.”
Biden leads Trump in opinion polls nationally as the race enters its final stretch, although his edge is tighter in key battleground states.
Thursday’s debate in Nashville, Tennessee, was the last time for both candidates to share a stage before a large television audience, and Trump engaged in a more civil discourse with far fewer interruptions than at their first debate in September.
“Trump was fine tonight. Might even give it to him on points. It’s just not the game-changer he needs,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist in Virginia who has worked on US Senate campaigns.
Trump continued to insist that businesses should fully reopen and all students should return to schools, while playing down predictions that the winter would bring a second devastating wave of cases. “We’re learning to live with it,” said Trump, who battled the virus himself earlier this month.
Polling by Reuters/Ipsos has shown that a majority of Americans have continuously faulted Trump for his handling of the pandemic, and it has remained atop voters’ list of concerns throughout the year.
Compounding Trump’s challenge: Just a small sliver of undecided voters remain, polls show, as more than 48mn Americans already have voted.
And while Trump for the most part stayed composed and controlled on the debate stage, he appeared not to try to connect with that fraction of the electorate.
There was little recognition from the president that most of the public watching at home had endured a brutal year marked by lockdowns, layoffs, illness and death.
When Biden sought to appeal directly to struggling families, Trump dismissed it as empty political rhetoric.
“Typical politician,” Trump said. “That’s why I got elected.”
With polls showing healthcare to be a priority issue, Trump declared that he wants to “terminate” the 2010 Affordable Care Act, the programme known as Obamacare, while still offering no replacement that would protect people with pre-existing health conditions, including Covid-19.
“Voters are generally concerned with substance,” said Aaron Kall, an expert on presidential debates at the University of Michigan. “Biden’s continual focus on middle-class voters was intentional and will further complicate Trump’s task with regards to undecided voters.”
Trump’s vulnerability on the pandemic has forced him to turn to other stratagems to try to get back in the race, including aiming to brand Biden as a corrupt politician in the same manner he attempted to do with Democrat Hillary Clinton four years ago before he edged out a narrow victory.
Despite Trump’s less acrimonious performance on Thursday, the race remains a referendum on him.
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