WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The final debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden on Thursday (Oct 22) will feature a mute button to allow each candidate to speak uninterrupted, organisers said on Monday, in a bid to avoid the disruptions that marred the first match-up.
The Trump campaign voiced objections to the change - made after the President repeatedly talked over both Mr Biden and the moderator at last month's debate in violation of its agreed-upon rules - but said the Republican would still take part in the Thursday night event, one of his last chances to reach a large prime-time audience before voting ends on Nov 3.
The Presidential Commission on Debates said each candidate's microphone would be silenced to allow the other to make two minutes of opening remarks at the beginning of each 15-minute segment of the debate. Both microphones will be turned on to allow a back-and-forth after that time.
"President Trump is committed to debating Joe Biden regardless of last-minute rule changes from the biased commission in their latest attempt to provide advantage to their favoured candidate," campaign manager Bill Stepien said.
The Biden campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
More than 30 million Americans have already cast their ballots, limiting Mr Trump's chances of reframing a contest that national and state opinion polls show him trailing.
Mr Trump repeatedly interrupted Mr Biden during a chaotic and ill-tempered debate on Sept 29, at one point provoking Mr Biden to snap: "Will you shut up, man?"
'They cut you off'
Mr Trump backed out of a second scheduled debate set for last Thursday over a disagreement about the virtual format following his Covid-19 infection. At that time, he raised concerns about having his microphone muted.
"You sit behind a computer and do a debate - it's ridiculous, and then they cut you off whenever they want," he said in an Oct 8 interview on Fox Business.
Earlier on Monday, Mr Trump's campaign said it was unhappy with the announced set of topics for Thursday's debate, arguing that it should focus more on foreign policy and complaining that the non-partisan group was tilted toward Biden.
"I will participate but it's very unfair that they changed the topics and it's very unfair that again we have an anchor who's totally biased," Mr Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One as he returned to Washington from rallies in Arizona.
Ms Kristen Welker of NBC News, a respected White House reporter, is slated to anchor the debate.
Mr Biden's campaign said both sides previously agreed to let moderators choose the subjects. It said Mr Trump wanted to avoid discussing his stewardship of the coronavirus pandemic, which surveys show is the top issue for voters.
"As usual, the President is more concerned with the rules of a debate than he is getting a nation in crisis the help it needs," Biden spokesman TJ Ducklo said.
The number of Americans who voted early reached 30.2 million on Monday, according to the University of Florida's United States Elections Project. That number represents more than one-fifth of all the votes cast in the 2016 election.
Early voting is likely to ramp up this week as more states open up voting centres for those who want to avoid possible coronavirus exposure at crowded Election Day polling sites.
In Florida, where more than 2.5 million have already voted by mail, residents lined up for the first day of early in-person voting. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week showed Mr Trump and Mr Biden effectively tied in the state, which is seen as a must-win for the President.
Hundreds of people, most wearing face masks, stood in pouring rain in the morning outside the public library in Coral Gables, a majority-Hispanic city near Miami.
Mr Louis Perez, 57, an insurance fraud investigator, said he was voting for Mr Biden because of Mr Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
"He lied about it right from the beginning," Mr Perez, who is not affiliated with a party, said of Mr Trump.
Registered Republican Antonio Sanchez, an architect who arrived in the United States from communist Cuba, said he supported Mr Trump because he "stands for freedom" and against socialism.
"My two daughters are doctors," said Mr Sanchez, 59. "I don't think this could have happened any place other than America.