Presidential debates in limbo

President Donald Trump, right, and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate Sept. 29 in Cleveland, Ohio. Olivier Douliery/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — After throwing the debate schedule into turmoil by rejecting a switch to a remote format, President Donald Trump agreed Thursday to accept former Vice President Joe Biden’s offer to postpone their second encounter, but a third debate was uncertain and the plan could still collapse.

Trump arguably has more to lose in the clash. His combative first debate with Biden, on Sept. 29, proved a disaster for his reelection campaign, and the president is desperate to shake up polls that show him trailing Biden in key states and the nation less than a month before Election Day.

Trump initially said Thursday that he would refuse to participate after the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the two candidates would speak from separate locations at the next debate, scheduled for Oct. 15, because of the pandemic. The president was hospitalized over the weekend for COVID-19 and remains infectious.

Biden’s team then suggested pushing the town-hall-style event to Oct. 22 — when Trump presumably would be fully recovered and no longer contagious.

The president agreed, but insisted that the third and final debate also get pushed back a week, to just before the Nov. 3 election, and that the two events be held in person. Biden’s campaign rejected that proposal, so the schedule remains in limbo.

“Trump’s erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar, and pick new dates of his choosing,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager.

“We look forward to participating in the final debate, scheduled for Oct. 22, which already is tied for the latest debate date in 40 years. Donald Trump can show up, or he can decline again. That’s his choice,” she added.

The latest turbulent chapter in the presidential race began early Thursday when the independent commission that conducts the debates announced it would hold the Oct. 15 debate virtually “in order to protect the health and safety of all involved.”

The moderator, C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, would be in Miami with voters who would pose questions to the candidates in a town-hall-style format, but the two candidates would be at remote locations.

Trump swiftly rejected the idea.“I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate. That’s not what debating is all about,” he told Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business. “You sit behind a computer and do a debate. It’s ridiculous.”

Trump’s allies revived baseless suggestions that Biden wanted to use a teleprompter or get assistance from advisers, and Trump’s aides said the president would hold a rally that night instead.

“We’ll pass on this sad excuse to bail out Joe Biden and do a rally instead,” said Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, who has tested positive for the coronavirus himself and is working remotely.

At least for now, holding a campaign rally could be dangerous. The president remains contagious, and many of his supporters refuse to wear masks or socially distance.

Stepien said there was no reason to debate virtually next week because the president “will have posted multiple negative tests prior to the debate.”

The White House has refused to say when Trump last tested negative for the coronavirus. He announced early Oct. 2 that he had tested positive, and was rushed to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that night.

Biden appeared to accept the remote format, but once Trump pulled out, his campaign said he would hold his own town-hall event that night and answer questions from voters.

Bedingfield then offered to postpone the town-hall debate with Trump to Oct. 22 “so that the president is not able to evade accountability.”

“The voters should have a chance to ask questions of both candidates directly,” she said. “Every presidential candidate since 1992 has participated in such an event, and it would be a shame if Donald Trump was the first to refuse.”

Trump’s campaign is eager for him to make up for his ruinous first debate performance. Public opinion surveys showed voters were repelled by his bullying demeanor as he repeatedly mocked and interrupted Biden.

The former vice president’s already significant lead in polls has grown by several percentage points since the Cleveland debate.

For the trailing candidate to turn down a nationally televised debate is unusual — typically, the front-runner tries to avoid unpredictable events such as live debates.

But Trump’s decision-making has been erratic in this closing stretch of the campaign, even by his standards.

Since returning from the hospital Monday, he abruptly canceled stimulus talks with House Democrats, ruling out the possibility of providing more financial relief to Americans struggling with the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis.

Then, just as suddenly, he sought to restart the negotiations after a sharp decline in the stock market. The talks have not resumed, and the likelihood of getting a deal before the election is exceedingly slim.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has publicly questioned whether the drugs Trump is taking, especially dexamethasone — a steroid that can cause irritability and mood swings and give a false sense of extra energy — have impaired the president’s judgment.

“The president is, shall we say, in an altered state right now,” she told Bloomberg on Thursday.

Trump said on Fox Business that he’s feeling much better after his hospitalization but is still taking the steroid, which is prescribed for COVID-19 patients facing lung trouble.

Although presidential debates have mostly been held in person, it’s not unprecedented to have the candidates in separate locations.

Richard Nixon was in Los Angeles and John F. Kennedy in New York for their third debate in 1960; the moderator was in Chicago.

After Trump announced his positive diagnosis last Friday morning, Biden was tested multiple times over the next few days to ensure he had not contracted the coronavirus while on stage with the president. He tested negative each time.

Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris — the running mates for Trump and Biden — also tested negative. But the commission placed plexiglass barriers on stage between them for the vice presidential debate Wednesday night, and they sat 12 feet apart.

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Tribune Wire

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