(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden is sequestered at his Camp David retreat for a week of intensive preparation ahead of his debate with Donald Trump, as the incumbent looks to dispel questions about his age and demonstrate he’s ready for the rigors of another four years in office.

Biden takes the stage Thursday in Atlanta for a forum that materialized suddenly after uncertainty over whether he would debate his opponent at all. Republicans and conservative media have amplified video clips to raise doubts over Biden’s fitness and acuity.

The White House has labeled the videos “cheap fakes” and worked feverishly to counteract them, but their resonance underscores the stakes for Biden heading into the debate. 

Any stumble could be politically disastrous. A strong performance could exceed expectations and dull the presumptive Republican nominee’s most potent line of attack. 

Biden is huddling with more than a dozen aides to hone his performance, including longtime advisers Ron Klain, Bruce Reed and Mike Donilon. The sessions are set to be informal at first, with Biden and aides kicking around issues. Then they’ll start mock debates, in which Biden’s personal lawyer, Bob Bauer, will play Trump, said a person familiar with the planning, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Biden allies said the debate offers a prime opportunity to drive away age concerns, likening it to the State of the Union, for which Biden won positive reviews.  

“I focus on performance and results,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, who helped Biden prepare for his 2012 vice-presidential debates by standing in for rival Paul Ryan. “Republicans have tried to use these doctored video tapes, heavily edited social media posts to mislead voters.”

Debate Strategy

The president aims to go on offense and pop voters’ rosy recollections of Trump’s presidency. Biden is preparing to attack Trump on abortion restrictions, the Jan. 6, 2021 US Capitol attack, threats to democracy and over tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, a campaign official said on condition of anonymity.

Biden’s campaign is optimistic that a national audience will be alarmed more by Trump’s words than the president’s age. At recent rallies, the former president has proposed a fighting league for migrants, called fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter a “wonderful man” and discussed at length whether it would be preferable to be eaten by a shark or electrocuted by the battery on a boat.

Biden plans on casting himself as a wise, steady leader by comparison.

“It’s reminding voters why they fired Trump in the first place,” said Jim Messina, former President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager. “I used to say to President Obama: Every day you’re talking about yourself and your record, you’re on the defense.”

Trump is preparing in loosely organized sessions, leading Democrats to predict he will present a more subdued version of himself.

“The media wants to lower Joe Biden’s debate performance bar so low he gets a participation trophy simply for standing upright for 90 minutes,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement. Trump will press Biden on inflation, the border and immigration, he said. 

The debate comes the same week the Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether Trump is immune from prosecution for his acts as president, raising the stakes for the Republican as well.

“Trump is going to really put that more approachable, kind of sanitized version of himself forward,” said Kate Berner, a former Biden communications aide. “He knows that this is an important moment for him.”

Biden’s campaign has tempered expectations.

“Is it the be-all and the end-all of the whole thing? Of course not,” Biden campaign chair Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, who is participating in debate prep, said in a Puck podcast interview. “We have really, really big moments coming up throughout. But I think it’s as important for Donald Trump.”

Viral Videos

Critical to Biden’s effort will be avoiding a freeze or misstep opponents can exploit. 

Conservatives gleefully circulated video from the Group of Seven summit, in which Biden stepped away from other leaders and looked toward a group of parachuters outside the camera frame during a skydiving demonstration. In other clips, Biden paused halfway while sitting during a D-Day commemoration or stood still as others danced at a Juneteenth concert. 

White House officials angrily denounced the clips as unfair but those protests have done little to convince voters. Biden’s campaign is lining up “creator watch parties” to flood social media with clips of their own.

Biden has avoided debate flops before. In 2012, his performance against Ryan calmed Democratic nerves. And Biden benefited from his first 2020 debate with Trump, when the Republican repeatedly interrupted him. 

Trump also attacked Biden’s son, Hunter, something the president’s aides expect again. Hunter Biden, like Trump, is a convicted felon, after being found guilty on gun charges. Some aides cited Biden’s response in 2020 that he loves his son as a highlight.

Biden is “going to try to create that split-screen and that choice for voters,” Berner said.

In one 2020 debate, Trump said “there’s nothing happening there” after Biden warned abortion rights were “on the ballot.” Two years later, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, curtailing abortion access. Biden’s campaign hammered Trump this week on the two-year mark of the decision.

Earlier: Anti-Abortion Ballot Measures Faltering Two Years After Dobbs

During the 90-minute CNN debate, moderated by Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, microphones will be muted when it’s not a candidate’s turn and pre-written notes are barred. Trump allies have criticized CNN, calling the debate a “3-on-1” event.

Trump will get the last word. After winning a coin toss, Biden’s campaign chose the podium, putting the president on viewers’ right-hand side, according to CNN. Trump’s team then settled the order of closing statements, opting to speak last.

The June timing is easily the earliest first debate in the era of televised contests. The two are scheduled to debate again on Sept. 10.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.