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Tonight's debate is Trump's last best chance to change the race

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: President Donald Trump addresses supoorters during a Make America Great Again rally as he campaigns at Erie International Airport in Erie
President Donald Trump addresses supoorters during a Make America Great Again rally as he campaigns at Erie International Airport in Erie, Pa., Oct. 20, 2020.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The 2020 debate cycle began with 20 Democratic candidates over two nights in Miami. (Remember that?)

And it ends here in Nashville with the second — and final — showdown between President Trump and Joe Biden, representing Trump’s last best chance of changing a presidential race where the toss-up states are Georgia, Iowa and Ohio.

Not Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

By the numbers, the first debate was a disaster for Trump.

Our national NBC News/WSJ poll that was conducted immediately afterward showed Biden’s lead growing to 14 points (it’s since come down to 11), and it found voters thinking the former vice president did a better job at the debate by a 49 percent-to-24 percent margin.

That debate also started what’s been a brutal and crazy last four weeks for the incumbent president:

  • Sept. 29: In first debate from Cleveland, Trump and Biden trade insults and interruptions — with most, though not all, coming from the president.
  • Oct. 2: Trump reveals that he and the first lady tested positive for the coronavirus; Trump gets flown by helicopter to Walter Reed hospital.
  • Oct. 5: Trump returns to the White House, instructs Americans not to be afraid of the coronavirus and says in a video: “And now I’m better, and maybe I’m immune, I don’t know. But don’t let it dominate your lives.”
  • Oct. 7: Vice President Pence and Kamala Harris debate in VP showdown.
  • Oct. 8: Prosecutors bring charges against men plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer before the election; New York Times reports that the president lashed out at his cabinet for not indicting his political rivals; and Trump refuses to participate in a virtual presidential debate, throwing the rest of the debate schedule into limbo.
  • Oct. 12: Trump makes his first return to the campaign trail, stumping in Florida; Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing begins.
  • Oct. 15: Trump and Biden participate in dueling town halls after second debate was cancelled.

Can Trump turn it around with 12 days to go and with some 40 million votes already cast?

Tonight’s debate — which begins at 9:00 p.m. ET and is moderated by NBC’s Kristen Welker — is his last best chance to do so.

And it probably all hinges on the president’s behavior.

Tweet of the day

About last night’s intel announcement

The debate also comes after last night’s FBI/DNI announcement that Iran was behind emails sent to intimidate Florida voters.

“The emails, which ominously instructed Democratic voters in Florida to switch to the Republican Party, purported to come from the Proud Boys, the right-wing group of Trump supporters that became a flashpoint during the first presidential debate,” per NBC News.

“But the emails were actually ‘spoofed’ and had been designed ‘to incite social unrest and damage President Trump,’ said John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence.”

But a lot doesn’t add up about this announcement.

One, how did these emails only “damage” Trump when they were intimidating Democratic voters?

Two, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that the classified briefing he got from intelligence officials was how this interference was more about undermining confidence in the election – not damaging Trump.

And three, the Washington Post reports that Trump has discussed firing FBI Director Christopher Wray after the election, because he won’t indicate that Hunter Biden or other Biden associates are under investigation before the election.

Add up these questions and developments, and you see how Trump has hurt the credibility of the government’s intelligence services — and also why any of these kinds of announcements lack the punch they would have in any other political era.

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

8,378,766: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 58,136 more than yesterday morning.)

223,360: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 1,139 more than yesterday morning.)

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

39: The number of states where Covid cases have risen over the last seven days, per NBC News data.

36,688,447: The number of Americans who have voted early, either by mail or in person, according to NBC and TargetSmart

2020 Vision: Trump talks Iran, China and Russia

As the Director of National Intelligence and FBI director were warning Americans that Iran and Russia are trying to interfere in the upcoming election — noting that Iran was behind manipulated emails to voters — President Trump also talked about Iran and China at a rally last night:

“Iran doesn't want to let me win. China doesn't want to let me win, they want me to be defeated so badly.” He added, “The first call I'll get after we win, the first call I'll get will be from Iran saying let's make a deal.”

DNI Ratcliffe also said during his news conference that Russia “obtained some voter information, just as they did in 2016.” And during his time in North Carolina, Trump revived his 2016 campaign attacks regarding Russia too: “Remember I said, Russia, Russia, Russia if you're listening, please give us whatever it was Hillary's emails or whatever. And then everybody laughed, but they kept me off just before the end, and they said he was asking Russia for help.”

Trump did not comment on the election integrity briefing during his rally.

On the campaign trail today

Trump and Biden debate at Belmont University in Nashville beginning at 9:00 p.m. ET. Mike Pence stumps in Michigan and Indiana. Kamala Harris holds a virtual event to mobilize women voters.

Ad Watch

Today’s Ad Watch looks at the recent Spanish-language ad strategy from the presidential airwaves.

President Trump’s campaign dropped a new spot this week that throws the kitchen sink at former Vice President Joe Biden as the Republican looks to capitalize on the Democrat’s underperformance with Florida’s Hispanic community.

There’s a photo of Biden kneeling superimposed in front of a flag of Che Guevara; the ad also accuses him of betraying Nicaraguans, abandoning the Venezuelans, and being the candidate of Castro-Chavistas. The spot ends with Trump declaring “America will never be a socialist country.”

Meanwhile, the Biden campaign recently started running testimonial spots of Spanish-speaking individuals telling their own stories — combatting the socialist charge against Biden, attacking Trump on Puerto Rican hurricane recovery and the coronavirus, and criticizing Trump's hydroxychloroquine push.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

Former President Obama ripped into Trump while campaigning in Philadelphia.

The CDC is expanding their definition of a “close contact” with a Covid-19 case.

Former Vice President Joe Biden told CBS he’ll put together a commission to study recommendations to reform the court system if elected.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the weekly unemployment claim trends show a “the summer’s rapid labor market improvement cooled dramatically this fall.”

The Supreme Court blocked curbside voting in Alabama, overturning a lower court decision

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote to advance Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination as Democrats threaten to boycott the vote.