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Biden, Trump square off for a podium rematch, signalling start of presidential battle

Joe Biden and Donald Trump are preparing to square off in their first presidential debate of the campaign tonight as the tight race for leadership of the United States begins to ramp up.

The current president and the one-time occupant of the Oval Office are looking to highlight their respective policies, personal qualities and visions for the country.

The matchup in Atlanta is taking place historically early in the timeline of a general election and it’s uncertain whether the debate will spur interest from Americans who aren’t already engaged, said the University of Pennsylvania’s Marc Trussler.

“It’s very, very strange to have such a big campaign event this early into the cycle,” said Trussler, director of data science for the university’s program on opinion research and election studies.

Millions are expected to watch, which is important for both camps in an election that could be decided by a small fraction of voters in a handful of battleground states, including Pennsylvania.

Trump held a rally in Philadelphia last weekend and the Republican campaign opened a new outreach office in the town of Reading, a heavily Latino part of the state, earlier this month. Biden’s re-election campaign is also investing dollars in Pennsylvania, fanning out more than 100 staffers across the state.

But Trussler says it’s not clear the efforts will turn into votes. Many in Pennsylvania, like much of the country, don’t seem invigorated by either candidate or what they’re selling.

There appears to be less excitement and fewer debate watch parties in the state than in previous election years, Trussler said. Pennsylvania went to Trump in 2016 and swung back to Biden in 2020 — both by a narrow margin.

This time around there are significant differences in support levels for both Biden and Trump among people who aren’t very engaged in politics, Trussler said. Many Americans see both presidential contenders as lacklustre and therefore they are just less interested in the campaigns.

Democrats and Republicans are hoping the debate will light a spark.

At the same time, both leaders will have to fend off questions about whether they are fit to do the job.

Trump is likely to be called to account for his recent conviction on 34 felony counts in a hush-money trial, with serious charges in three other indictments pending.

Biden, 81, could be challenged over his age and energy level, though the 78-year-old Trump regularly makes his share of baffling verbal miscues.

Trussler said he expects Biden will try to demonstrate the strength of the economic recovery under his tenure, especially compared to the performance of other countries.

Trump, on the other hand, will hammer down on how inflation is still hurting American families, Trussler said. Trump will also likely try to paint immigration to the U.S. as a source of societal woes.

“The biggest thing I’m looking for is, are people paying attention to this debate and is it going to change, particularly how low-engagement voters are seeing this race?” Trussler said.

Many Canadians will also be tuning in and keeping an ear on any policy promises that might affect the relationship with their largest trading partner.

Whoever wins the election will be in power during the looming review of the continental trade pact in 2026. In preparation, the Liberal government’s Team Canada has been pounding the pavement south of the border to bolster connections with both the Trump and Biden camps.

Trussler, who is Canadian, said he thinks people in Canada are just hoping for a bit of calm from their neighbour.

“United States is the elephant that lives next door to Canada and I think Canadians want to see there be stability.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 27, 2024.

— With files from The Associated Press

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press