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Better debate performance doesn’t help Trump

Jules Witcover, syndicated columnist

WASHINGTON — A less bombastic Donald Trump showed up against Democratic nominee Joe Biden in their final debate in Nashville, but the president’s relatively good behavior still left him the clear underdog in the election only 10 days away.

Trump did not match the fiery assault on Biden of their first encounter. But he did and said little to dispel his failure to cope with the raging coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 220,000 American lives.

Biden early in Thursday night’s debate laid down his own marker, saying: “Anyone responsible for that many deaths should not remain the president of the United States of America.”

Trump had just repeated his contention that “we’re rounding the corner” in the pandemic and “it’s going away.” But his efforts to change the subject with more muted attacks on Biden and his family were of little relevance.

The president again sought to cast his opponent as a political has-been, saying, “He’s been in government 47 years, he never did a thing.” Biden reminded him who was in charge now. And when Trump said he had “learned a lot” in being infected by the coronavirus himself, the former veep shot back: “I will end this. I will make sure we have a plan.”

Biden sought early to draw a character distinction between the president and himself: “He’s a very confused guy. He thinks he’s running against somebody else. He’s running against Joe Biden.” Biden pointed out that he was the Democratic nominee because he had defeated Sen. Bernie Sanders and all the other primary challengers in the party.

Then, addressing the huge television audience, he made a personal pitch regarding himself and Trump: “You know who I am. You know who he is. You know his character. You know my character.”

Biden also seized on the furor over the report that 545 children separated from their immigrant parents at the southern border remained in federal custody under Trump’s policy, calling it “criminal.” Trump’s apparent indifference to these inhumane separations, Biden implied, suggest a deep empathy gap between the two candidates.

At the same time, Trump continued his attempt to make political hay over Biden’s son Hunter’s former high-paying job at a giant Ukrainian energy firm, when his father was leading an Obama administration fight against corruption in that ally country. So far, the allegation of influence peddling has seemed to gain little traction. Biden said at this debate, “I have not taken a penny from any foreign source at anytime in my life.” He then pivoted to a report that Trump has a bank account in China that may have paid taxes there while he paid next to nothing here in the United States.

Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives for attempting to extort the assistance of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in digging up political dirt on the Bidens. Zelenskiy never complied and the nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid that Trump held up finally was released to Ukraine anyway.

Biden in the final debate seized on that fiasco as well. Of Trump, he said: “He doesn’t want to talk about out the substantive issues. It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family, and your family’s hurting badly.”

Trump’s newfound verbal restraint in this final 2020 debate was notably assisted by the deft and firm moderating by Kristen Welker of NBC News under the new rules laid down by the independent Commission on Presidential Debates. It sought and achieved a more civil candidate discourse between Trump and Biden. But it did little to change the outlook that Donald Trump still faces an uphill struggle to save his presidency on November 3, amid hopes for an orderly transfer of power, if it comes to that.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.

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