With record-breaking viewership expected Monday night for the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, few moments could have a bigger impact on who becomes the next president.
The two candidates took diametrically opposite paths to reach the stage at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York, and will lay out radically different visions for the country.
The good news for Trump, Republicans say, is that the expectations for his performance are at about rock bottom. While he's been a more disciplined campaigner in recent weeks, he's struggled to stay on message and answer substantive policy questions. He also has never faced the bright spotlight of a one-on-one debate. His campaign, looking to reinforce his underdog image, claims he's eschewing typical debate preparations.
"He doesn't have to be better than Hillary, but he is going to have to show a command of the subject matter beyond just glitzy sound bites in order to pacify some segments of the electorate," Republican consultant Ford O'Connell said.
Read more from Alex Seitz-Wald and Benjy Sarlin at NBC News
Presidential debate moderator Lester Holt, a veteran broadcast journalist known for a cautious and dispassionate style, is entering thorny terrain tonight at the center of what is likely to be a rhetorical firestorm between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
“In many ways Holt is not much different than an NFL referee — it’s a thankless task, no one wants to notice you, but if you make a mistake they will pounce on you,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said. “Here is the key: We expect close to 100 million viewers, and for about 40 million it will be their first real impression of either candidate, and depending on your party affiliation, that could be a scary thought. And that’s what should keep Holt sleepless.”
Holt has been a registered Republican since 2003, a fact that only came out after Trump lumped Holt in with other interviewers who are Democrats or seen as left-leaning.
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Recognizing that the debate about the presidential debates on social media could have as much influence on public opinion as the candidates’ words, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is taking preemptive steps to guide the conversation online.
Days before the first presidential debate between Clinton and Donald Trump, scheduled for Monday night at Hofstra University, the Democratic nominee’s communications staff reportedly detailed a social media strategy for supporters in a conference call Thursday.
“This could be potentially the most important set of debates we’ve seen in the modern era,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
O’Connell said the detailed reporting on Clinton’s strategy may raise expectations for her, as will the general sense that Democrats view Trump as “a know-nothing dodo.”
Read more from Stephen Loiaconi at WJLA
One of Hillary Clinton's favorite riffs is to recount all the investigations she has endured and smile and say "And they haven't got me yet."
That may be about to change. No, the furtive conservative dream to see her in an orange jumpsuit won't come true anytime soon. But her dream is to become president, and the cumulative effect of all these scandals might well now stand in the way.
Last Sunday, Clinton slipped out of a 9-11 event at Ground Zero in New York so abruptly her Secret Service detail could not get her vehicle to the meeting place on time. A jarring video Americans will never forget showed her list to the left, right herself with help from an agent, then collapse before she could get into the van.
Nothing was wrong, her campaign said at first. Then, she was dehydrated. Then, it was allergies. Then, finally, the campaign admitted Clinton had been diagnosed with pneumonia on the previous Friday. That was four stories in one day, then another a day later when Bill Clinton called it the flu.
The campaign has admitted it could've handled this better, which is like Custer admitting he could've handled Little Big Horn better. Meanwhile, Americans wonder if she is much more ill than she has let on and whether they'll ever get a straight story about it.
Read more from Ford O'Connell at the Washington Examiner
Facing an opponent who has failed to attract the same young Americans who flocked to President Obama in 2008 and 2012, Donald Trump saw an opportunity earlier this month to court disenchanted millennials with a not-so-secret weapon.
To engage youth voters, the Republican presidential nominee released an image of his eldest children — Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric — staring intently into the camera with the hashtag #MillennialsForTrump written beneath on a crisp red, white and blue banner. Within hours, the photograph became an unfortunate Internet meme, evoking comparisons to the 1984 cult film "Children of the Corn" and giving amateur photoshoppers a canvass to play with.
Since that episode, Trump has done little to make inroads with millennials, while Clinton has flung herself at America's youth and deployed high-profile surrogates to lend assistance. But as polls tighten and Clinton's outreach falls flat, Trump could renew his pitch to young voters. If he does, his campaign manager may prove to be a far better weapon than his children.
"Clinton is having a really hard time recreating the Obama coalition especially because of her problems with millennials," said veteran GOP strategist Ford O'Connell. "They're not exactly falling in love with Trump, but he's getting a little bit of a benefit with Stein and Johnson being in the race."
He added, "What's happening with a lot of millennials is the conservative ones are going, 'Screw it. I'm voting Trump,' and the liberal ones are saying, 'Maybe I'm going to take a chance on a third-party candidate."
"The best way either candidate can attract millennials is to have a good debate," said O'Connell. "Sure, Trump is generally doing much better with older voters who have just had it with the current political system … but that doesn't mean he should remove their children from the calculus."
Read more from Gabby Morrongiello at the Washington Examiner
With the race between U.S. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and her Republican rival Donald Trump running neck and neck, the upcoming presidential debates could determine who will clinch the White House.
Clinton is now still the favorite to win the presidential race, but now it could become a very tight race," Republican strategist Ford O' Connell told Xinhua.
"The polls are tightening and the Clinton camp is concerned about turnout," said O' Connell.
The Clinton camp has realized that there's "an enthusiasm gap in favor of Trump," he noted.
Indeed, Trump has galvanized working class whites more than any Republican candidate in decades, whereas Clinton has not garnered anything near that sort of enthusiasm.
Many Clinton supporters don't feel passionate about the candidate, but rather support her simply because they don't like Trump.
Trump was trailing Clinton several points in the polls just a month ago, but behind only 1.5 points in the Real Clear Politics poll average on Saturday.
The past month has looked good for Trump but increasingly bad for Clinton, especially after her collapse last Sunday in New York. That has sparked concerns that the 68-year-old candidate may not be healthy enough to lead the country.
At the same time, Trump has in recent weeks made an effort to appear more presidential, making serious policy speeches with cogent arguments, instead of controversial, offensive and over-the-top statements that get him into trouble with voters.
"Clinton's had a bad month. Trump has had a very, very good September. Obviously we still have half the month to go, but between the health issue and the 'deplorables' comment, things are looking up for Trump," O' Connell said.
Read more from Mathew Rustling at Xinhua
When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet on the debate stage for the first time in late September, it could be their last shot at swinging the race in their direction before November.
"The first debate could draw 100 million viewers," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "Perceptions of the candidates have hardened, but still there might be 40 million who form their perceptions for the first time."
"These debates will probably be the most-watched presidential debates in history," said Brett O'Donnell, a Republican communications professional who helped the Bush-Cheney campaign with debate preparation in 2004 and advised Mitt Romney during the 2012 primary debates.
"While you can't win an election in a debate, you can certainly lose an election in one."
[Clinton] has so relentlessly argued that he is manifestly unqualified and belittled his accomplishments in business that it is relatively easy for Trump to clear the bar that she has set for him.
"They have gone so scorched earth on him that they have moved past him," O'Connell said.
Read more from W. James Antle III at the Washington Examiner
On Monday, the most crucial political event between now and Election Day — the first presidential debate — will be only a week away.
The first clash between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is expected to shatter ratings records. Some experts are suggesting that 100 million people could watch the encounter, which will take place at Hofstra University, just outside New York City. Debates usually attract between 60 and 70 million viewers.
For Trump, the issue is more about trying to persuade viewers that he is an acceptable choice as president. Emerging from the encounter unscathed would “be a victory, a massive victory,” according to GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “He doesn’t necessarily have to be better than Hillary, he just has to be plausible as a commander-in-chief.”
O’Connell’s analysis points to something on which experts of all political persuasions agree: Expectations will be lower for Trump than they are for Clinton.
Trump has frequently been a subject of media derision with his bombastic performances, but O’Connell noted that the importance of that criticism could be exaggerated.
“It’s about communicating with the audience,” he said. “Sometimes he may say some things that sound jarring to reporters and policy wonks, and to the audience they may not. That’s one of the things that is important in judging debates — you have to keep an eye on the audience.”
Read more from Niall Stanage at The Hill
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s scathing hacked email assessments of Hillary Clinton as someone who “screws up” everything she touches with “hubris” and Donald Trump as a “national disgrace” could serve to drive down turnout among voters who largely agree with his biting criticisms of the two widely disliked presidential hopefuls.
“He expressed the frustration the core supporters of both candidates feel, as well as those who might not have decided how to vote in the election,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “He was able to hit the entire voter spectrum.”
In some of his more damning remarks about Clinton, Powell calls her “greedy” and says, “Everything HRC touches she kind of screws up with hubris,” though he voices “respect” even as he expresses disdain.
Read more from Kimberly Atkins and Brian Dowling at the Boston Herald
There's a reason why the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns are behaving like the election could turn on a single, newly coined noun -- "deplorables."
The political firestorm over the Democratic nominee's use of the word to demean half of her rival's supporters might seem like another of the bizarre spats that trivialize presidential races. But the controversy has turned into one of those rare campaign moments when strategists for each candidate are happy to trade fire on the same ground.
"We have the support of cops and soldiers and carpenters and welders and accountants and lawyers, the young and the old, and millions of working class families all over this nation," Trump said in Iowa Tuesday. "My opponent slanders you as deplorable and irredeemable."But the Clinton campaign -- struggling to move past damaging video showing the Democratic nominee stumbling and wobbly over the weekend -- is hardly in a defensive crouch on the "deplorables" comment. Instead, the plan is to turn the tables on Trump with the implicit accusation that if anyone is deplorable, it is him.
"This is not a mistake on Clinton's part. She is looking up at the polls, they are tightening and there is an enthusiasm gap in favor of Trump," said Ford O'Connell, a GOP strategist who is not affiliated with the Trump campaign. "She is engaging in what some would argue is a high-risk strategy to gin up support among voters who just might not turn out."
O'Connell added: "Turnout is the biggest issue for her. The map is the biggest issue for Trump."
Read more from Stephen Collinson at CNN