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Politics In The News: First Presidential Debate


The first presidential debate is tonight. It is being billed as potentially the most-watched in history. It could - could - draw up to 100 million viewers, and that's getting into Super Bowl territory there. So over the weekend, both campaigns were out in full force. Yesterday at a rally in Miami, Hillary Clinton's vice presidential pick, Tim Kaine, promised his Democratic running mate was ready.


TIM KAINE: When the lights are bright, like they are now, she brings the A-plus game to the table. She's going to be very, very good tomorrow. She's going to be very, very good.


KAINE: Donald Trump's a performer and an entertainer. I'm not taking that away from him. He's got a - you know, he's got a reality show, and he tells people they're fired with a big grin on. I'm sure he's going to be entertaining, but he can't get away with, like, doing the 15-second and then, you know, walking away, not taking questions, which is what he likes to do. No, it's 90 minutes, mono a mono.

GREENE: And Donald Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway was on ABC's "This Week," and she said her nominee was going to bring the A-plus game as well.


KELLYANNE CONWAY: I can understand why the Clinton camp is very nervous because Donald Trump's got great presence, stature. He's a brilliant debater. Newt Gingrich put it best. The former speaker recently said, Donald Trump is the best debater he's ever seen. He's like the Babe Ruth of debating. He really shows up and swings and does a great job.

GREENE: All these sports metaphors. Well, let's bring in our A-plus political panel this morning. NPR commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts is on the line. And in the studio with me is Jonah Goldberg, senior editor at The National Review and columnist for The LA Times. Good morning to you both.

JONAH GOLDBERG: Good morning

GREENE: Good morning, David. Morning, Jonah

GOLDBERG: Morning, Cokie.

GREENE: So Hillary Clinton going into this debate, Cokie, with poll numbers falling. What do we know about how she's preparing and what she wants to pull off here?

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Well, what we know is from her campaign. And they tell us things because they think that they - that it's going to help her. So we don't know, you know, how accurate any of this is, but they say that she's been reading great, big briefing books, so of course we know that she's well versed on policy already, and that she's preparing for whichever Donald Trump shows up, whether it's the pugnacious, ready-to-hurl-insults Donald Trump or the calmer, more disciplined and appearing to look, quote, unquote, "presidential" Donald Trump.

There was a flap over the weekend about whether Mark Cuban, the - a fellow billionaire who doesn't like Trump, would be sitting in the front row to rattle him. And then Trump tweeted that he would then invite Gennifer Flowers, who...

GREENE: Oh, my.

ROBERTS: ...Had an affair with Bill Clinton. Yeah, so it was like that. But look, Hillary Clinton's big problem here is that, as you just said, she is falling in the polls. So what she's got to do is convince the Obama coalition of minorities and young people and women that they like her and that they're enthusiastic about her and that they're going to turn out to vote for her and to remind the majority of people who continue to say that they don't think Donald Trump is qualified to be president of why that's true. And that's a big, tall order.

GREENE: And, Jonah, Donald Trump - does he have a tall order? What is it? Is he reading thick briefing books - or what's he doing?

GOLDBERG: My understanding is that he is in preparation has sacrificed 50 balls to Zeus.



GREENE: That image is something.

GOLDBERG: They leak a lot that he doesn't believe in a lot of prep, that he is sort of a - seat of his pants, gut fighter, instinctual guy. There's no reason to believe that that's not true given his past experience, but there is this air of sort of psychological warfare going on where I think both sides are trying to bait the other into being scared and to second guess themselves.

And I do think that the one thing that has been forgotten about and the immense amount of punditry about all of this is that Hillary Clinton is a woman. And whether you're a traditional conservative like I am or whether you're a hard core feminist or something in the middle, the one thing in our culture we understand is that - or we all of us tend to agree on is that being rude to women is different than being rude to other men. And the one of the few times that Trump really got hurt in the primaries was when he tried to go after Carly Fiorina, and she turned on him.

GREENE: So that's a real risk here for Trump you're thinking.

GOLDBERG: Yeah. Well, I think it's a real risk for Trump and remember Hillary Clinton's...

ROBERTS: It's also a risk for her because...

GOLDBERG: It's also a risk for her...

GREENE: In what way?

GOLDBERG: ...If she tries to overplay it. But remember the Rick Lazio debate in 2000 was her moment when he tried to sort of alpha dog against Hillary, and it blew up on him.

ROBERTS: In fact, I asked him at the conventions what would be - his advice would be to an opponent of Hillary Clinton's - and he said stay behind the lectern.

GREENE: (Laughter).

ROBERTS: So - but, you know, David, there's been a huge - and Jonah - a huge amount of discussion about whether debates really matter.



GREENE: There's some studies that suggest they really don't. That, I mean, only a few percentage point of viewers said they really change any preferences afterwards.

ROBERTS: Well, but a few percentage points could - will determine this election...

GREENE: In a close election? OK. Fair enough.

ROBERTS: ...If the polls are right. But I'll tell you a story. I went - I talked to the Census Bureau in 1980 - one debate, one week before the 1980 election between Carter and Reagan. The Carter people were dying to debate Reagan. They thought that he wasn't smart and all of that. I went to a - what's now would be called a Reagan Democratic district in Pittsburgh. It was then just called Democratic. And every single white voter I talked to said the same thing.

Ronald Reagan stood on that stage for 90 minutes with the president of the United States. I liked him. He wasn't too old. He wasn't scary. I'm going to vote for him. And I then went through that weekend to California, and the same thing kept - I kept hearing the same thing over and over and over again. In fact, when I filed my story the day after the debate, my editor at NPR said that can't be true. All those voters can't be saying that.

GREENE: But they were.

ROBERTS: And I kept saying I can't do all those accents, you know - I'm not that good.


GREENE: Cokie, you're that good.

ROBERTS: But the truth - but it made an enormous difference. And that Monday night, Linda Wertheimer and I went on the air saying that it was going to be a landslide. And everybody said, oh, this is what happens when you put women on, and, of course, it was a landslide.

GREENE: Jonah, I'll give you the last word. So there's - these things really do matter?

GOLDBERG: These things really can matter. They're going to be three of them. And I think the overall impression matters more than anything individually. There's always a chance that someone just blows up, you know, that's a possibility. But my guess is that the, you know, the totality of them is going to matter more than any individual one debate.

GREENE: OK. Well, the first of four is tonight and enjoy watching it both of you.

GOLDBERG: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Thanks.

GREENE: That was NPR commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts and also Jonah Goldberg, senior editor at The National Review and a columnist for The LA Times, talking about the debate tonight. We're hours away. And we also want to hear from you. What is guiding your vote this election year? What would you like the next president to understand about your life? Tell us using the hashtag #dearwashington. You can do it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Let us know so we can tell your story this election season. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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