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First 2016 Presidential Debate Preview


After all the primaries, endorsements, stump speeches and rallies, tomorrow, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will have their first head-to-head debate. We're joined now by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who can tell us what's at stake for each of the candidates. I'm guessing it's a lot.

Hi, Mara.


MARTIN: Let's start by just having you break down what each candidate needs to do tomorrow night.

LIASSON: This debate is extremely important. You know, a hundred million people could be watching. The race is very tight. The latest ABC-Washington Post poll shows that it's a virtual tie. So for Hillary Clinton, she comes into the debate with the burden of high expectations, and she has a much harder task in the debates. Somehow, in 90 minutes, she has to show voters that she is honest, trustworthy and likable. And without looking angry or defensive or aggressive - because women candidates are penalized for that - she has to show that he is unqualified to be president.

Donald Trump, on the other side, has the benefit of low expectations. He has to be reasonable and calm and show a basic command of the facts because he has to help people imagine him as president because so many people think he's not qualified to be president. And the big question for Trump really is, which Trump shows up? Is he the one who is going to counterattack and insult his opponents, or, as he put it in an interview, he plans to be very, very nice?

MARTIN: All right. We'll watch for that. I want to turn to something happening today, though. Both candidates are meeting separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York. President Obama had kind of a famously contentious relationship with Netanyahu. What do Clinton and Trump want out of their meetings with him?

LIASSON: This meeting is much more important for Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton. Clinton has met with Netanyahu many times. Trump needs to show that he's presidential. And every time he sits down with a foreign head of state, like the press conference he had in Mexico, he tries to do that. The interesting thing about this race is how little Israel has been an issue. And that really is because of Netanyahu himself, who has been very careful to stay out of this race, unlike in 2012, where he was widely perceived to be favoring Mitt Romney over Barack Obama.

MARTIN: And lastly, we need to get to this interesting, I guess is the word for it, endorsement that happened for Donald Trump this past week. Ted Cruz, a big rival of Trump's in the primary, came out and said that he was going to endorse Donald Trump.

Is that a big deal? I mean, does it change anyone's mind?

LIASSON: I don't think so. Cruz went from saying vote your conscience at the Republican convention to saying he would vote for Trump. I think people who would have been swayed by Ted Cruz's endorsement were already with Trump. What it means, I think, is that the Republican Party's accommodation to Trump is now almost complete. The Never Trump-ers (ph) are really down to a - the Bushes and a few conservative intellectuals.

But of course, Cruz has taken a big beating for this. Just as he was booed for not endorsing Trump in the convention, the Twitter-verse is filled with tweets saying Lyin' Ted went to Complyin' Ted.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

LIASSON: So I think this is really more about Ted Cruz than it is about the race itself.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson.

Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: And our colleague Robert Siegel will be anchoring NPR's live coverage of tomorrow's presidential debate. You can listen on many NPR stations starting at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.