NEW YORK • President Donald Trump's refusal to hold a virtual town hall debate with his Democratic rival Joe Biden after his hospitalisation for the coronavirus has created one of the stranger events of the 2020 campaign - two town halls, each featuring a candidate, before different audiences in different cities at the same time.
The concurrent hour-long events - starting at 8pm in New York (8am today in Singapore) with Mr Trump on NBC and Mr Biden on ABC - threaten to fracture television viewership, making it harder for the candidates to deliver their messages to a broad audience. NBC News said Mr Trump's event in Miami would take place outdoors to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Mr Biden's ABC News event will take place in Philadelphia.
The event will give Mr Trump one of his highest-profile opportunities before the Nov 3 election to reverse his slide in polls that show Mr Biden ahead.
Instead of sparring with each other over topics such as the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and healthcare, the town hall format gives the candidates a less contentious opportunity to lay out their positions, and engage one-on-one with voters.
Mr Trump backed out of the originally scheduled debate for yesterday that was planned as a town hall format. His campaign rejected revised plans by the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates for the candidates to appear remotely after Mr Trump was hospitalised for Covid-19, insisting that the President and his aides - a number of whom also tested positive for the virus - posed no health risk.
With 18 days before the election, early voting has started in two dozen states. In-person and mail-in voting are surpassing records amid concerns about Covid-19 transmission at polling places and what strategists in both parties say is heightened interest in the race.
The pandemic, which has killed more than 216,000 in the United States and left more than 7 million infected, is sure to be a top topic among voters' questions for each of the candidates.
Two-thirds of registered voters say the President failed to take appropriate precautions against the virus, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released over the weekend.
Mr Biden has hammered Mr Trump for his cavalier approach towards the pandemic. The President has spent recent days downplaying the threat posed by Covid-19, touting an experimental antibody treatment he received while hospitalised and saying social-distancing measures advocated by Democrats did more harm than good.
"The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself," Mr Trump said on Wednesday in remarks to the Economic Club of New York.
Both candidates are also likely to face questions about the Supreme Court. The town halls are taking place during the confirmation process for Mr Trump's high court nominee, Ms Amy Coney Barrett.
Democrats argue that the nomination should not be considered while voting for the next president is under way. They are warning that Ms Barrett could cast a deciding vote to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which has become increasingly popular.
The President and his campaign aides, meanwhile, see the nomination as a way to activate conservative and religious voters who care deeply about the court's composition. Ms Barrett's confirmation to the lifetime post - a virtual certainty given Republicans' Senate majority - would drive the Supreme Court further right with a 6-3 conservative majority.
Mr Trump and other Republicans have been pressing Mr Biden to say whether he supports adding seats to the court, or "court packing", an idea that has support from progressives who see it as the only way to regain a majority.
After weeks of ducking the question, Mr Biden said on Monday that he's "not a fan of court packing", but still left open the possibility.
Mr Trump argued that Mr Biden's refusal to answer is evidence that the former vice-president is a puppet of the more extreme elements of the Democratic Party.
More than 13 million Americans have already voted, setting a record early pace, according to the US Elections Project at the University of Florida.
Many wanted to avoid the large crowds expected on election day. In the last polls, in 2016, some 1.4 million Americans had cast early votes as of Oct 16 that year.