LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The president indulged a crowd in Michigan in chants of lock her up after attacking Governor Gretchen Whitmer again. Let's recall the FBI revealed a plot to kidnap and possibly harm her. And after those chants, Trump then replied to the crowd, lock them all up. He may have to answer for that on Thursday when he's scheduled to debate Joe Biden on leadership, among other subjects. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us. Good morning, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think that debate will actually happen?
LIASSON: Well, as the president likes to say, we'll see what happens. Biden has confirmed that he will come to the debate. He has said that he and Trump should both have to take a COVID test before the debate. Trump hasn't confirmed his attendance. But he has criticized the moderator, NBC correspondent Kristen Welker, for being biased against him.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, these are all attacks against women - Whitmer there and then the moderator for the debate on Thursday. I'd like to take a look at how this is playing. Let's look at the state of the campaigns. Here's a bit of tape from this past week.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TED CRUZ: I think it could be a terrible election. I think we could lose the White House and both houses of Congress - that it could be a bloodbath of Watergate proportions.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Texas Senator Ted Cruz on CNBC Friday. What do you make of it?
LIASSON: What I make of it is that it reflects what a lot of Republican operatives are saying in private. There's a lot of gloom and pessimism. They say if the election were held today, Trump would lose. And there are not a whole lot of opportunities for him to turn things around in the remaining days. You even have Thom Tillis, the Republican incumbent in North Carolina, who said to Politico that he would be a check and balance in a Republican Senate against a, quote, "Biden presidency." It's not that Republicans are breaking from Trump. If they did that, they would lose their base, and that would hurt them. But they are more willing to criticize the president. Here's Ben Sasse from Nebraska. In the past, he's been an on-again-off-again critic of the president. But on a call with constituents last week, he slammed Trump for, among other things, kissing dictators' butts.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BEN SASSE: The way he treats women and spends like a drunken sailor. The ways I criticized President Obama for that kind of spending, I criticize President Trump for, as well. He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He's flirted with white supremacists.
LIASSON: Trump himself is also changing his tone. He used to say that he could only lose the election if it was rigged. Now he seems to be acknowledging that losing is a possibility. He said that would be embarrassing. And he joked that he may have to leave the country if he loses.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But this weekend, Joe Biden's campaign manager said exactly the opposite of this, that the race is neck and neck in critical states. She wrote in a memo that Fox News obtained - and I'm quoting here - "the reality is that this race is far closer than some of the punditry we're seeing on Twitter and on TV would suggest."
LIASSON: First of all, the Biden campaign does think the race is closer in the battleground states than public polling suggests. Also, Jen O'Malley Dillon has every reason to paint this as a close race because she doesn't want Democrats to get complacent. Democrats I talk to don't sound complacent. They wake up in a stone-cold panic every day because they remember what happened in 2016. But also, there's a plausible theory of the case for how Trump can win. The polls could be wrong. They could still be undercounting white, noncollege voters. There are also a lot more white, noncollege voters in the upper Midwest battleground states that didn't vote in 2016. In other words, there are lots of potential Trump voters out there for him to get. You also have Republican registration of new voters beating Democrats in several states - Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And new registration is a sign of enthusiasm. Those are voters that are going to turn out. And those are the things that keep Republicans from despairing altogether and keep Democrats up at night.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you so much.
LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.