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Why Biden Wanted to Debate Trump Early, and Why Trump Said Yes

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News Analysis

President Biden, trailing in polls, is hoping to shake up the race and mitigate political risk. Donald Trump, already lowering expectations for his rival, is eager for onstage clashes.

President Biden and his campaign have moved recently to focus voters' attention on Donald J. Trump and what it would mean for him to return to power.Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

Tens of millions of dollars of advertising has not changed President Biden's polling deficit. Donald J. Trump's criminal trial has not altered the race's trajectory. And Mr. Biden's significant cash and infrastructure advantages have yet to pay political dividends.

So on Wednesday, the one weekday Mr. Trump is not confined to a courtroom, the Biden campaign shook up the race, publicly offering to bring forward the first presidential debate by three months. The move was meant to jolt Americans to attention sooner than later about their consequential choice in 2024. Mr. Biden's advisers have long believed that the dawning realization of a Trump-Biden rematch will be a balm for the president's droopy approval ratings.

The Trump team swiftly accepted. And Mr. Trump proceeded to do Mr. Biden the favor of lowering expectations for his performance, writing on social media that his rival was "the WORST debater I have ever faced." The post was a preview of the insults to come, with Mr. Trump accusing the president of being unable to "put two sentences together" and calling him "crooked" three times.

The early-debate gambit from Mr. Biden amounted to a public acknowledgment that he is trailing in his re-election bid, and a bet that an accelerated debate timeline will force voters to tune back into politics and confront the possibility of Mr. Trump returning to power.

Yet, at the same time, proposing the earliest general-election debate in the history of television is a way to mitigate the risks of placing an 81-year-old president onstage live for 90 minutes. By agreeing to two debates rather than the traditional three, the Biden campaign is limiting his exposure. By scheduling the clashes further out from Election Day, both candidates will have opportunities to recover should they stumble.

Mr. Trump, who turns 78 in June and skipped all of the Republican primary debates, has been eager to meet Mr. Biden onstage, publicly and privately casting him as diminished since 2020. Within hours of Mr. Biden's announcement on Wednesday, both sides had publicly agreed to a debate on June 27 hosted by CNN in Atlanta and one with ABC News on Sept. 10.

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