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Politics & Government

Talking Debate Strategy Before Monday Night

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And we're going to spend the next few minutes talking about the do's and don'ts surrounding tomorrow night's first presidential debate. It will be the first time Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump square off on the same stage. And I know everyone always says the stakes are high, but it's really true in this case. The stakes are high because this election is far closer than perhaps either campaign thought it would be at this point.

I'm joined now by two veteran political operatives. Bill Burton was a senior aide on Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, served as deputy press secretary in the first Obama administration and co-founded Priorities USA. It's a Democratic super PAC. And Beth Myers was a senior adviser to Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign and is a long-time Republican strategist. Thanks to you both for being with us.

BETH MYERS: Good morning.

BILL BURTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Let's talk about preparation first, which is what Hillary Clinton is good at. Even her critics have to admit that she's someone who does her homework and she's likely to come prepared. Does that matter? If everyone expects her to be prepared with the deep contextual policy answers, does that move the needle among undecided voters? I'll start with Bill.

BURTON: Well, I think that her preparation is probably one of the things that sets her apart from other people she's debating. You know, she debated President Obama over 20 times back in 2007 and 2008, and she always came armed with facts and figures and a sense that she had command of that stage. So I think that people expect that she's going to come prepared, but you still have to actually come prepared. And I think it's going to be a big part of what sets her apart from Donald Trump on stage tomorrow night.

MARTIN: Beth, do you think that? Do you think her preparation can actually change minds or it's just expected? And that's - if she doesn't then that's what makes news?

MYERS: No, I think she will absolutely come prepared for this event. And until you've been on a presidential debate stage where you have 15 long minutes up on a stage with just you, your opponent and a moderator to discuss a complex issue, you can't really appreciate how much that preparation is important. I think both of them will be preparing. But Hillary's experience in government and in many jobs in government in addition to what is expected to be a deep preparation for this, I think, will be one of the advantages she has in this contest.

MARTIN: What does Donald Trump need to do tomorrow night, Beth?

MYERS: Well, I'm a believer that whoever keeps the other candidate on offense best is the winner. And he has proved somewhat masterful in that in the primary settings, and I think he'll bring that game to this setting also. But it will be different. In the primary setting where you can go on offense with one-liners and short answers, that wears thin quickly. And I think Hillary, to keep Donald Trump on offense, will be pushing him hard on actually answering the policy issues that are on the table.

MARTIN: But does that make a difference in this medium and for the audience, Bill? I mean, he is the master of reality television. This is his medium. So if he's the guy who can kind of capture the room by being this compelling character who can rattle off one-liners, I mean, does he win more support out of that?

BURTON: Well, look, Joe Biden famously says, don't compare me to the almighty. Compare me to the alternative. And having 90 minutes of Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton on stage I think is going to be very difficult for him because it's not about one-liners. Like, this is the moment when Americans tune in and say, OK, I'm actually deciding who between these two people I want to be my commander-in-chief.

And I think for Donald Trump, who has demonstrated no impulse control throughout this entire campaign, he's going to have a hard time reaching those voters who he really needs to reach, who are above the 42 percent that support him. Finding his path to the 50 plus 1 percent of Americans who could actually make him president is going to be hard for him because he's kind of a jerk, and he comes off like that. And no matter how much people try to rein him in, 90 minutes on live television, on stage with just Hillary Clinton and Lester Holt, is going to be a real challenge for him.

MARTIN: You know, you call him a jerk. Other people say he's this straight-talking guy and that appeals to me. But it does bring up this idea - the historic nature of this. This is the first time we are going to see a woman candidate for president standing on the stage for the general presidential debate. How is that going to come into play, if at all, do you think? Let's just say in the prep, is it something they're going to be talking about in the Trump campaign, Beth?

MYERS: Oh, of course. And I think it's a great moment, frankly, for our country. And Donald Trump will undoubtedly try to - try his offensive - I don't mean offensive in a - offense tactics that he used so effectively in the primaries. I think Hillary Clinton will weather those well. I think she's prepared for that. I think she is not going to let herself be bullied by Donald Trump. And she will be able to turn the tables in a way that none of the Republican primary candidates were able to. Now, there is a - there's a big risk for her because he will bring up the political that she is obviously less comfortable with than she is when she's talking about policy issues. And that's probably what she's been prepping about most hard this week.

MARTIN: Where could she fall, Bill? Where could she stumble?

BURTON: Well, I think - look, she's very good at debating. And over the course of her career, she has chewed up and spit out many a man who she's been on a debate stage with. I think that when she's at her best, she shows real command and strength. When she's at her worst, though, when she seems tired or she seems condescending, that's your biggest pitfall. I mean, even for President Obama, whom - you know, you have to admit she mostly beat President Obama in those debates in '07 and '08. He was at his worst when he came off as condescending, when he said, you know, you're likable enough, Hillary.

I think that she has to be very careful that she doesn't have any moments like that where she feels like she's doing so well or she feels like she's so far ahead of Trump in terms of intellect that she does the Al Gore sighing or eye rolling or any of that. I think that could be...

MARTIN: ...Body language is important, yeah.

BURTON: Yeah, absolutely.

MARTIN: We'll have to leave it there. Lots to look out for tomorrow night. Bill Burton advised Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008. Beth Myers was a senior adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012. Thanks to both of you.

MYERS: Thank you, Rachel.

BURTON: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: And you can listen to NPR's live coverage of tomorrow's debate on many NPR stations starting at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.