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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The voters watching the debate with a hand over their eyes

Joe Biden during the final presidential debate of the 2020 presidential election with President Donald Trump at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 22, 2020. On Thursday, Trump and President Biden will meet for the first time since 2020 in a high-stakes clash with the rare power to jolt a contentious general election campaign just as it ramps up. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

By Jess Bidgood

Jay Bodenstein, a lifelong Democrat who lives in The Villages retirement community in Florida, plans to sit down this week for a night of television he regards with terror.

He will not be watching a horror movie. He’ll be watching the debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.

“I’m fearful, I really am,” said Bodenstein, 76. People of his and Biden’s age (81) can easily misspeak or make mistakes, he said, and he worries a slipup on the debate stage — or even just a moment of thoughtful hesitation — could sink Biden’s campaign.

“I think he could possibly lose the election, which would be tragic,” Bodenstein said, adding that he wished the men weren’t debating at all.

On Thursday, Trump and Biden will meet for the first time since 2020 in a high-stakes clash with the rare power to jolt a contentious general election campaign just as it ramps up.

But many Democrats, as well as independent and Republican voters who are opposed to Trump, are feeling not so much “rah-rah” as they are a more anxious “ruh-roh.” After eight years of watching Trump’s caustic and unpredictable debate performances against Biden and Hillary Clinton — and as Biden fights doubts about his age after a slurry of sometimes deceptively edited videos — some of them are just plain scared about what will happen at a moment when the stakes feel astronomical.

“I am, and many of my friends are, dreading it,” said Hilary Collins, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, who said she was the only one of her group of seven friends who could even bear to watch.

“I worry he’ll come across as old and out of touch,” said Roger Millnitz, an independent voter from Lincoln, Nebraska, who worries that Trump will exploit any slight weakness and who is deeply frustrated that a second term for the former president is even a possibility.

“I think it’s ridiculous that we’re at this point — that Trump, with all he’s been accused of and guilty of, is a candidate for the presidency,” Millnitz said. “It makes me almost retch.”

Last week, The New York Times asked readers how they were feeling about the debate. And although some expressed excitement and confidence in the president, many Democrats and Trump opponents who wrote in to describe feelings of dread, apathy and angst suggest that part of Biden’s challenge Thursday will be in reassuring and exciting his own supporters as well as persuading new ones.

“It has all the makings of a train wreck with chemical spillage that is lethally toxic,” said Jeffrey Marshall, an Arizona Democrat.

Democratic strategists say the hand-wringing is nothing new — particularly for a president who is often underestimated, and who outperformed expectations as recently as at his energetic State of the Union address. Polls suggested Biden won their last debate, in 2020, and he went on to win that election.

“Democrats, who are worriers to begin with and who are absolutely terrified of Trump, are worried,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who does work on behalf of the Biden campaign but was speaking only for herself. “We have short memories and big fears.”

Trump’s supporters, by contrast, often project serene confidence about how their candidate will perform against Biden.

Trump “is going to eat him up and spit him out,” said Maria Tiernan, 80, a retiree who saw the former president speak at a rally Saturday in Philadelphia. “I’m going to make popcorn. I’m having a party.”

“Trump has him in the debate, hands down,” said Emmett Taylor, 67, of Camden, New Jersey.

Several of Trump’s supporters worried that he wouldn’t be treated fairly by the debate’s moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash of CNN. But the sky-high expectations that his supporters have for his personal performance, as well as their low expectations for Biden, could become a problem for Trump — one that he seemed to try to get ahead of at the Saturday rally by crudely suggesting that a strong performance by Biden could come only if he was using drugs.

“This is a great opportunity for Biden,” said Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist who worked on the 2016 presidential campaign for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. “If he goes in there and exceeds the expectations of the chattering class, I think he comes out with a win.”

Frances Malone, 68, an independent voter in Columbus, Georgia, who is disappointed that Democrats didn’t seek a successor to Biden for this year’s election, said she was deeply troubled by the possibility of Trump’s winning the election — particularly after the attack on the Capitol by his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021. The debate, she said, is “just something that has to be done.”

She is reserving some hope, however, that Biden will surprise her.

“I have a childish wish to see Donald Trump lose his mind on camera — if he can somehow get Trump to show his true colors, it wouldn’t be the worst thing for me,” she said. “I hope we see the strongest Joe Biden out there.”

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