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When is the first presidential debate? September 29.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump will meet onstage in Cleveland for the first debate of the general election.

Joe Biden at the 11th Democratic debate on March 15, 2020.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has changed a lot about the 2020 presidential campaign, but at least one thing is set to proceed mostly as planned: the debates. The first of those, between Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, is set to take place on September 29 in Cleveland, Ohio.

The debate will be held on the joint campus shared by Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic. The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates has announced that Fox News anchor Chris Wallace will moderate, and the debate will run from 9 to 10:30 pm Eastern time.

Two more presidential debates and a vice-presidential debate will follow in October.

According to Dr. James Merlino, a Cleveland Clinic executive, the September debate audience will be kept small, likely no more than 200 people, and now-familiar public health protocols — “sanitizing hands, testing, doing health screenings, wearing masks, all of that” — will be in place for the debate.

As with everything else this year, the debates have been beset with uncertainty. Though the University of Notre Dame was originally set to host the first debate, it pulled out in late July, citing coronavirus concerns.

“In the end, the constraints the coronavirus pandemic put on the event — as understandable and necessary as they are — have led us to withdraw,” Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins said at the time.

Notre Dame isn’t the only host to back out; the University of Michigan Ann Arbor was set to host the second debate but canceled in June. And the changes might not stop there: According to reporting by Cleveland’s ABC affiliate, a live debate audience could be nixed entirely if the coronavirus risk is too great.

And that’s just the Covid-related uncertainty. Earlier this month, the Trump campaign tried to request a schedule change: In a letter to the CPD, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani petitioned either for the addition of a fourth debate — there are three currently scheduled — or for the third debate to be moved from late October to early September, arguing that voters need a chance to watch the candidates debate before early and mail-in voting starts.

“How can voters be sending in Ballots starting, in some cases, one month before the First Presidential Debate,” Trump tweeted at the time. “Move the First Debate up.”

Giuliani also included a list of suggested debate moderators, including Fox News’s Bret Baier and Maria Bartiromo and conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt.

The commission, however, roundly rejected the Trump campaign’s requests — none of the four debate moderators announced Wednesday were names from Giuliani’s list.

In addition to the Trump team’s suggested revisions to the debate schedule, there was also a short-lived faux controversy over whether Biden would appear at the debates, prompted in part by a WSJ editorial board op-ed.

As the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel pointed out in August though, “the ‘Biden wants to cancel the debates’ meme is a TV invention.” There are no signs that the Biden campaign ever considered withdrawing from the debates.

In a statement after the moderators were announced, Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates reiterated that point: “As Joe Biden has said for months — without farcical antics — he looks forward to participating in the debates set by the commission, regardless of who the independently chosen moderators are,” Bates said Wednesday.

Biden has a steady polling lead

When Biden and Trump do take the stage late next month, they’re likely to be facing a political reality — a raging pandemic, an economy in crisis, and a national reckoning over race — that doesn’t look too different from right now.

Biden’s polling lead, which stands in early September at 7.5 points in the FiveThirtyEight national polling average, has remained fairly steady, though it’s down from its high of better than 9 points earlier this summer. And while polls are more of a “‘snapshot’ in time, and not necessarily predictive of the election’s final result,” as my colleague Li Zhou has explained, the underlying structures of American life right now don’t look like they’ll change in the near term.

The US continues to report tens of thousands of daily new coronavirus cases. Weekly jobless claims have dipped below 1 million only once since late March. And public approval on Trump’s handling of the pandemic has remained below 40 percent since early July.

Absentee ballots will start going out as early as September 4 (in North Carolina), and the general election will be just 35 days away when the candidates meet in Cleveland.

The second and third debates will take place on October 15 and 22, respectively, in Miami and Nashville, Tennessee. C-SPAN editor Steve Scully will moderate the Miami debate, and NBC anchor Kristen Welker has been announced as the moderator for the final debate in Tennessee. Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence will also meet at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City for a debate of their own on October 7, moderated by USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page.


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