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At tonight's debate, it's the incumbent vs. the frontrunner

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Joe Biden, Democratic Presidential Candidates Discuss LGBTQ Issues At Human Rights Campaign Foundation Forum
Joe Biden speaks at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and CNN's presidential town hall, focused on LGBTQ issues, in Los Angeles on Oct. 10, 2019.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — While both have their strengths, neither President Trump nor Joe Biden is a virtuoso debater. And each of them have their challenges at tonight’s first general-election debate in Cleveland, Ohio.

For Trump, maybe his biggest challenge is simply being the incumbent president — that, for the first time in four years, you have to share a stage with your opponent and get treated like an equal. Think what happened to Barack Obama in his first debate in 2012. Or George W. Bush during his showdowns in 2004.

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“It's the trap of presidential incumbency,” longtime GOP debate expert Brett O’Donnell told one of us.

For Biden, the challenge is two-fold: One is handling all of Trump’s verbal slings and arrows and keeping the debate focus on the coronavirus and Trump’s record.

And two is simply being the frontrunner and having the most to lose tonight.

In fact, as the challenger who’s leading in the polls against a sitting incumbent, Biden has both the most to gain and most to lose.

Don’t expect the debates to change many minds

Yes, debates have mattered in past presidential cycles.

But the polling shows that most voters’ minds are already made up heading into tonight’s first debate.

This month’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 71 percent of voters saying that the debates aren’t very important in making their choice.

And yesterday’s national Monmouth poll showed that while 74 percent of voters say they plan to watch the debates, only 13 percent said they are “very” or “somewhat” likely to influence their votes.

Tweet of the day

Lots of coronavirus-related news

If tonight wasn’t Debate Night, the biggest story in the country might be the coronavirus.

The worldwide death toll passed 1 million. Cases in the U.S. are on the rise or holding steady. And the New York Times reports how the White House pressured the CDC to downplay the risks of sending children back to school.

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

7,183,186: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 35,479 more than yesterday morning.)

206,295: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 355 more than yesterday morning.)

102.34 million: The number of coronavirus tests that have been administered in the United States so far, according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

More than 1 million: The number of deaths worldwide from COVID-19.

More than 40: The number of states that have seen an increase in opioid-related deaths since the pandemic began.

$427 million: How much President Trump made from his stint on The Apprentice and related marketing deals, according to a new New York Times story.

Just 29 percent: The share of American adults who want to see Roe v. Wade completely overturned, per a new NBC News|SurveyMonkey online tracking poll.

2020 Vision: Trump’s big problem in the Great Lakes states

Here are the some of the high-quality battleground polls among likely voters over the last 48 hours:

WaPo/ABC of Pennsylvania: Biden 54 percent, Trump 45 percent

NYT/Siena of Pennsylvania: Biden 49 percent, Trump 40 percent

NBC/Marist of Michigan: Biden 52 percent, Trump 44 percent

NBC/Marist of Wisconsin: Biden 54 percent, Trump 44 percent.

On the campaign trail today: President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden debate tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Biden’s different debate approach

We don’t know much about how President Trump and Joe Biden have been preparing for tonight’s debate, but NBC’s Mike Memoli and Marianna Sotomayor report from Biden world:

“In part because Trump is the sparring partner and in part because of the stubbornly stable state of the race, the former vice president has taken a different approach to preparing for this debate (compared to his 2008 and 2012 vice presidential debates) – and his team is majorly downplaying just how important it will be.”

“Asked Sunday what he needs to do, Biden answered simply: ‘Just tell the truth.’”

Ad Watch from Liz Brown-Kaiser

Today’s Ad Watch turns to South Carolina, where Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison is running a stronger-than-expected race against GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Senate Majority PAC, the main Democratic outside group for Senate contests, says it’s dropping $5 million on TV ads and $1.5 million on digital advertisements to boost Harrison and target Graham.

The new TV spot hitting airwaves Tuesday accuses Graham of failing to lower prescription drug prices during his more than 20 years in Congress.

“If we want lower drug prices, we need to clean out the swamp,” the narrator says. “Lindsey Graham: Gone Washington, gone bad.”

The Democratic Super PAC’s ad push comes as polls show Harrison and Graham virtually tied, and after Graham repeatedly appealed to Fox News viewers for campaign donations during interviews.

The Lid: Who run the world?

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we checked in on how women view the president. (Spoiler alert: It’s a big, big gender gap.)

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

A recording of the grand jury in the Breonna Taylor case will now be made public after a judge’s ruling.

The White House put pressure on the CDC to play down the risks of reopening schools, the New York Times writes.

Here’s the latest on accusations that an ICE-contracted detention center performed unnecessary gynecological procedures on detainees.

The battle over when the Census should wrap up its work is still ongoing.

Are Florida’s seniors in play now?