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Debate Preview: Microphone Changes In Place For Final Meeting

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You could argue that both of this year's presidential candidates are where they are because of Barack Obama. Joe Biden served as Obama's vice president. Donald Trump launched his political career with false attacks on Obama's birthplace. Now they campaign against each other. And yesterday, Obama joined the conversation, addressing a drive-in campaign rally in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

BARACK OBAMA: The thing is, this is not a reality show. This is reality. And the rest of us have had to live with the consequences of him proving himself incapable of taking the job seriously.

INSKEEP: A reference there to the current president who takes the stage tonight - President Trump shares it with Joe Biden for their final debate in Nashville. And we've brought back Republican political strategist Scott Jennings. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And also, Democratic strategist Karen Finney - good morning to you.

KAREN FINNEY: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I want to ask you both. Obama is not merely a former president, but he's kind of central to the story, as we mentioned. What's it mean that he weighed in now?

JENNINGS: Well, I'll start, Karen, if you don't mind.

FINNEY: Sure.

JENNINGS: I think that President Obama is obviously one of the best voices for Democrats for getting out the vote, and that's the period of the election we're really in. There's not much persuasion left to be done by campaign surrogates or even on the debate stage tonight. At this point, it's about convincing every single person who leans toward your party to turning out. And so I think they brought out the person who's probably best able to do that. I don't think he made very many persuasive arguments last night unless you're a committed Democrat. But it's get-out-the-vote period. He's probably their best bet.

INSKEEP: Karen Finney.

FINNEY: Well, a couple of things. I agree with a lot of what Scott said, although I think in terms of - I agree that it's less about persuasion. But some of his messages were meant to, you know, talking about, for example, tweet - and not having to wake up and worry about tweeting. That is some of I can just - you know, will tell you what we hear from voters in terms of what they are, even voters who have previously supported Donald Trump. The - so speaking to some of the concerns that previous Trump voters may be having as they're thinking about who they're going to vote for this time around, I think he spoke to that, and obviously a very important voice for Black voters. And as has been pointed out, I mean, turnout among African American voters in the Philly area in Pennsylvania was down in 2016, so trying to make that direct appeal.

INSKEEP: So let's talk about tonight's debate. Much has been made of the fact that the moderator is going to be allowed to mute the microphone during the opening statements of each segment. So the president can't interrupt quite as much. He doesn't like this. But I wonder, Scott Jennings, might it actually save the president from himself?

JENNINGS: Well, I agree that he won't like it, but I think that it will help if Joe Biden gets to talk a little bit, which will then allow him to unspool his views. And then the president can perhaps make the point that he has failed to make so far, which is that Biden has views and I have views and in my - and whatever you think of us, my policies are better for the future, especially on the economy. He never let that strategy unspool last time. So this might be a situation where you don't like the medicine, but the medicine is exactly what you need.

FINNEY: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: I'm glad you say that. Let's talk a little bit about the substance here because I kept track in the last debate in all the chaos, and Biden did manage to get in a few words about things he would want to do if elected. He has a climate plan, for example. He supports the Affordable Care Act. Trump seemed to say very little about what he would do if reelected. So that sets the stage for tonight. What substantive differences do you see between the two of them, and what do you still want to know between the two of them? Karen Finney, you can go first.

FINNEY: Well, I think it's hard to say whether or not it'll be substantive differences that folks will be looking for tonight, if you're watching this debate. I think at this point, people know a lot of the substance. They may want to hear a little bit more, for example, about, you know, criminal justice or about - you know, foreign policy will be one of the topics, so perhaps their, you know, theories of the case, if you will, in terms of America's role in the world. But really, it's about - the substance is about character at this point.

And, you know, if President Trump was able to do what Scott just described, I think he would be farther ahead in the polls. So I don't expect we're going to hear a lot of substance from Trump tonight. I think it'll be more of a character comparison that people will be seeing. And again, for those few folks who may still be, you know, on the fence, it is a reminder of, do you want four more years of chaos? And if - and I would say if Joe Biden can just try to stay focused and speak directly to the American people as much as possible and not be distracted by whatever Trump tries to throw at him, I think the character and the substance will come through.

INSKEEP: Scott Jennings.

JENNINGS: Yeah, I think Donald Trump - if he can make some case on the economy, if he can actually talk about the foreign policy successes that he's had recently in the Middle East, which are very pronounced successes - I mean, major peace deals - that would be a step in the right direction. But honestly, at this point, if you're undecided, I - welcome to Earth. I hope you had a nice landing last night in whatever Kansas wheat field that you landed in.

(LAUGHTER)

JENNINGS: We're having a presidential election, and you have to vote here in the next few days. This is about, ultimately, telling your people, vote, vote, vote. Both candidates are going to do it. And I don't expect them to do too much navel-gazing about trying to bring over partisans from the other side.

INSKEEP: Scott, in just about 10 seconds, do you think the president doesn't particularly care about the substance?

JENNINGS: Well, I think he cares about - I think he cares about not - people who say he hasn't accomplished anything, so he likes to litigate his first term. What he's not done is lay out a second-term agenda. And so, you know, more forward-looking would be better.

INSKEEP: Scott Jennings and Karen Finney, always a pleasure to talk with you both. Thank you so much.

JENNINGS: Thanks, Steve.

FINNEY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And we'll come back to you after the debate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.