NASHVILLE (REUTERS) - US President Donald Trump is expected to come out swinging in Thursday's (Oct 22) final presidential debate with Democratic rival Joe Biden to try to close a gap in opinion polls before an election 12 days away.
Trump needs to score some hits in the televised encounter to steady a campaign that is struggling, in part due to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 222,000 people in the United States.
Trump, a Republican, trails former vice-president Biden significantly in national polls ahead of Election Day, Nov 3, though the contest is much tighter in some battleground states where the election will likely be decided.
Biden leads Trump by eight percentage points in the latest Reuters/Ipsos national poll, conducted Oct 20-22. His lead has slipped by a couple of points over the past few weeks and is back to where it was in September, before Trump was hospitalised with Covid-19.
Relatively few voters have yet to make up their minds, and Trump's window to influence the outcome may be closing.
A record 47 million Americans already have cast ballots, eclipsing total early voting from the 2016 election, ahead of the debate in Nashville, Tennessee.
Trump's campaign signalled that the often pugnacious president would attack Biden for not accomplishing more during his nearly half-century in public service and zero in on what Trump, 74, alleges were corrupt practices by the Biden family.
Aides of Biden, 77, said he needs to deliver a disciplined performance to appeal to the undecided voters and not to allow Trump to get under his skin with attacks on his family, especially his son Hunter.
One Biden adviser said aides want him to counter Trump without seeming un-presidential. He is expected to again bash Trump's handling of the pandemic, arguing that it has had a disproportionate economic impact on low-wage workers.
Several states, including the election swing state of Ohio, reported record single-day increases in Covid-19 infections on Thursday, evidence that the pandemic is accelerating anew.
September's contentious first debate between the pair was watched by at least 73 million viewers. Trump passed up another planned debate last week after it was switched to a virtual format following his Covid-19 diagnosis.
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said the president would bring up Biden's long record in politics, as well as his family's business dealings.
"The clear message is that President Trump has accomplished more in 47 months than Joe Biden has in 47 years. The president built the world's best economy once and is already doing it a second time. Trump is still the political outsider, while Biden is the ultimate insider," Murtaugh said.
In the first face-off, Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden, attacked him personally, and showed little respect for the moderator. Swing voters, especially women, were turned off by his actions, post-debate polls and focus groups showed.
Michael Steel, a Republican who served as a top aide to former House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, said Trump needs to take a step back and give space for Biden to make mistakes.
"There is probably nothing President Trump can do in terms of attacking Biden that he didn't already try in the first debate," Steel said. "He now needs to rope-a-dope, laying back and acting presidential while needling Biden to flub - and flub badly."
After the first debate was marred by disruptions from both candidates, each of their microphones will be switched off while his opponent makes his two-minute introductory statement on a topic, so as to give uninterrupted speaking time.
Both microphones will then be active for the discussion period that follows. Debate topics will include the pandemic, race relations, climate change and national security. The Trump campaign argued that the entire debate should be focused on foreign policy.
Trump is expected to return to a line of attack that surfaced in the first debate, accusing Biden and his son Hunter of unethical practices in China and Ukraine. No evidence has been verified to support the corruption allegations by Trump and his aides, and Biden in the first debate called them false and discredited.
Biden campaign deputy manager Kate Bedingfield said Trump's personal attacks would backfire. "We expect that Trump will attack Biden and his family, and every time he does that all he's doing is reinforcing what we have said all along: he is acknowledging that he has no case for a second term. He has no answers to the failures of the last four years and no plans or vision for the next four," she told reporters.
Biden has been under pressure to explain his position on a push by some within his party to "pack" the Supreme Court to counter its rightward drift, by expanding the number of justices from the current nine.
He said on Thursday that if elected he would put together a bipartisan commission of scholars to examine reforming a federal judiciary that he called "out of whack." He said there were alternatives to consider besides expanding the Supreme Court.