With record-breaking viewership expected Monday night for the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, few moments could have a bigger impact on who becomes the next president. The two candidates took diametrically opposite paths to reach the stage at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York, and will lay out radically different visions for the country.
The good news for Trump, Republicans say, is that the expectations for his performance are about at rock bottom. While he's been more a more disciplined campaigner in recent weeks, he's struggled to stay on message and answer substantive policy questions. He also has never faced the bright spotlight of a one-on-one debate. His campaign, looking to reinforce his underdog image, claims he's eschewing typical debate preparations.
"Trump has a very low bar - just go onstage and don't look completely unhinged," said Ryan Williams, a GOP strategist who worked on Jeb Bush's presidential campaign. "If he's somewhat statesmanlike with his trademark bravado, he'll do fine." Trump's chief goal is to win back voters who normally vote for GOP candidates but are concerned about his temperament and knowledge compared to past nominees.
"He doesn't have to be better than Hillary, but he is going to have to show a command of the subject matter beyond just glitzy sound bites in order to pacify some segments of the electorate," Republican consultant Ford O'Connell said.
Clinton, meanwhile, faces sky-high expectations. She's an experienced debater, having participated in nearly 40 debates since her first campaign for senate in New York 16 years ago, and has been holding marathon prep sessions at a debate camp set up in a hotel near her Chappaqua home.
Both campaigns have been furiously working the refs in an effort to set the bar against which their candidate will be judged. They're also sharply disagreed over the role the moderator, NBC News' Lester Holt, should play. Clinton's campaign says Holt should aggressively fact check the candidates in real time, while Trump's team calls for a hands-off approach.
On a conference call with reporters Friday, Clinton aides used the word "lie" more than dozen times as they argued Trump and Clinton cannot be held to the same standard. "His level of lying is unprecedented in American politics," said Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri. "For the moderator to let lies like that to go unchallenged would give Donald Trump an unfair advantage."
Judging by her past debate performances, Clinton will likely come armed with fresh bits of opposition research and new one-liners to catch her opponent off guard. Clinton may also cross rhetorical lines she and her campaign have stopped short of thus far, like calling Trump a "racist" or accusing him of "bribing" public officials with campaign donations.
The debate proper goes LIVE 1am (Tuesday) Nigerian time.