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ATLANTA: President Joe Biden and his Republican rival Donald Trump will meet in a debate on Thursday that offers both candidates a unique opportunity to try to reshape the political narrative.

Biden, the incumbent Democrat, will get a chance to reassure voters that, at age 81, he is capable of leading the US through a range of challenges. Trump, 78, meanwhile, could use the moment to try to overcome his felony conviction in New York and convince tens of millions of viewers that he is temperamentally fit to return to the Oval Office.

Biden and Trump enter the night facing strong headwinds, including a public weary of tumultuous partisan politics. Both candidates are disliked by most Americans, according to polls, and offer vastly different visions on virtually every key issue. Trump has promised sweeping plans to overhaul the US government if he returns to the White House, and Biden has argued that his opponent would pose an existential threat to the country’s democracy.

With Election Day just over four months away, their performances have the rare potential to change the trajectory of the race. Every word and gesture will be analyzed not only by what the two men say, but also by how they interact with each other and how they withstand the pressure.

“Debates don’t tend to change voters’ perceptions in ways that change their vote: they tend to empower, not persuade,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on presidential communications. “This debate is different in that you basically have two rulers about whom voters have very well-formed opinions. But that doesn’t mean those ideas are correct or match what voters will see on stage.”

The debate represents a series of firsts

Trump and Biden have not been on the same stage or even spoken since their last debate weeks before the 2020 presidential election. Trump skipped Biden’s inauguration after leading an unprecedented and failed bid to reverse his loss to Biden, which culminated in a Jan. 6 revolt by his supporters in the Capitol.

Thursday’s broadcast on CNN will be the earliest election debate in history. It’s the first-ever televised general election presidential debate hosted by a single news outlet after both campaigns ditched the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has staged every contest since 1988.

According to network rules, independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. did not qualify.

In an effort to avoid a repeat of their messy matchup in 2020, Biden insisted — and Trump agreed — that the debate be held without an audience and that the network allow the candidates’ microphones to be muted when it’s not their turn. There will be two commercial breaks, another departure from modern practice. Candidates agree not to confer with staff or other persons when the cameras are off.

The timing follows moves by both candidates to respond to national trends toward early voting by moving the political calendar forward. It remains to be seen whether the advanced schedule will dampen the consequences of possible missteps, or crystallize them in public awareness.

“You have two men who haven’t debated in four years,” said Phillippe Reines, a Democratic political consultant who helped former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prepare for the 2016 debates with Trump.

Biden and Trump said: “They don’t like each other, we haven’t seen each other, (they’re) pretty rusty heading into the biggest night of their lives. That pretty much sums up what Thursday is all about.’

Both sides recognize bets

The debate comes days after the second anniversary of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, ending the federally guaranteed right to abortion and putting reproductive rights at the center of politics ever since.

The clash also comes just after the Biden White House took executive action to limit asylum applications at the US-Mexico border in an effort to reduce the number of migrants entering the country. Trump made illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign.

The wars in Ukraine and Gaza loom over race, as do the candidates’ starkly different views on America’s role in the world and its alliances. Differences in inflation, tax policy and government investment in building infrastructure and fighting climate change will provide further contrasts.

Also in the political background: The Supreme Court is on the verge of announcing its decision on whether Trump is legally immune for his alleged role in the January 6 uprising. That comes weeks after Trump was convicted in New York of taking part in a covert scheme that prosecutors say was intended to illegally influence the 2016 election.

Biden spent the week leading up to the debate in seclusion at Camp David with senior White House and campaign advisers, as well as a group of longtime advisers and allies. A mock stage was set up on campus to simulate the studio where the debate will take place, and Biden’s personal attorney, Bob Bauer, reprises his role as Trump in practice sessions.

Aides say the job reflects Biden’s understanding that he can’t afford a flat performance. They insist the sometimes stodgy speaker would embrace the opportunity.

“You know this president,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday. “He likes to fight.”

Trump, meanwhile, continued his more unstructured preparation for the debate with two days of meetings at his Florida mansion, phone calls with allies and supporters and testing attacks on social media and in interviews with conservative-leaning media. The disorganized style that is a hallmark of the former president’s often rambling rally speeches could present a challenge in the orderly and precisely timed debate format.

Trump and his aides have spent months noting what they say are signs of Biden’s diminished stamina. In recent days, they have begun predicting that Biden will be stronger on Thursday, with the goal of raising expectations for the incumbent.

The candidates mean Georgia

Atlanta, the debate’s host city, offers symbolic and practical importance to the campaign, but each side believes what happens there will resonate far and wide.

In 2020, Biden secured Georgia’s 16 electoral votes by less than 12,000 votes out of 5 million votes cast. Trump pressured the state’s Republican leadership to overturn his victory on false theories of voter fraud, memorably caught on tape saying he wanted to “find 11,780 votes.” He now faces state racketeering charges.

Both campaigns held a number of events in Atlanta to spark the debate, including competitive events at local Black-owned businesses. Trump called a rally at Rocky’s Barbershop in the Buckhead community on Friday to talk about his meeting with Biden and to ask whether CNN anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash would treat him fairly.

After leaving the debate, both Biden and Trump are traveling to states they hope to carry in the fall. Trump is heading to Virginia, a former battleground state that has shifted toward Democrats in recent years.

Biden is about to fly to North Carolina, where he is expected to hold his biggest campaign rally of 2020 in a state Trump narrowly swept.

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