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What To Expect From The Final Presidential Debate

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

The people who plan presidential debates are hoping things are different tonight between President Trump and Joe Biden. Unlike the debate planned for last week, it's actually happening. Both candidates tested negative for COVID-19 today, according to their staffs, and there will be some volume control. At the first debate, the president interrupted Biden and the moderator constantly. So now the candidates will be muted during some of their opponent's answers. For more on the debate and what it can mean with just 12 days left in the campaign, we're joined by NPR's Mara Liasson.

Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

MOSLEY: So we're in an unprecedented election for a lot of reasons, of course. But at this point, we know that nearly 50 million people have already voted. There are very, very few undecided voters left. So what's at stake tonight?

LIASSON: Tonight could be the last best chance for Donald Trump to change the dynamic of this race from a referendum on his leadership to a binary choice between him and Joe Biden. The problem is that in order to do that, he has to disqualify Biden. But now he's getting advice to be less aggressive about that, not interrupt so much, let Biden make mistakes. And Republican strategists inside and outside of the Trump campaign have been pulling their hair out because he has not been able to stick to a clear message, something that hasn't changed since that first chaotic debate.

MOSLEY: Mara, what do you think the issues will be? What will he focus on or try to focus on during tonight's debate - Trump specifically?

LIASSON: Well, I think that he'll certainly make some attacks about Hunter Biden. The big question is, does he talk about Amy Coney Barrett? He just doesn't talk about her very much. And that is something that his base supporters really like. Does he talk about the economy, or will he pick fights with Lesley Stahl of "60 Minutes" or the debate moderator, Kristen Welker, or Anthony Fauci? That's what he's been doing lately to make headlines.

And speaking of "60 Minutes," the president released his own recording of that interview with Lesley Stahl. It's going to air on Sunday. And there was a notable exchange about health care that really illustrates this problem for the president. And he talked about the administration's lawsuit over the Affordable Care Act, which is right now before the Supreme Court. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LESLEY STAHL: If the Supreme Court ends this with Obamacare...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, we've got to see what happens. It's got a ways to go. I mean, we'll see what happens. I think it'll end - I think - I hope that they end it.

LIASSON: I hope that they end it - that's what he says, but that is something that Republicans do not want to talk about. Obamacare has gotten more and more popular. Some Republicans are even saying they don't think the court will overturn it. But there he just handed Biden the opening for the attack he wants because Democrats feel that Obamacare, the ACA, is a great issue for them.

MOSLEY: OK, so an opening for Biden. What else do you think his goal will be for tonight?

LIASSON: The Biden campaign says his goal is to talk directly to the American people, to talk about what he's going to do to solve their problems, his plan for COVID, his plan to make the - what they say the super wealthy and corporations pay their fair share. And they believe that he won the last debate because the president's behavior was so over the top. And now they say he's better prepared. You could see Biden in the first debate really struggling how to deal with Trump, but Trump was so over the top that he became the big story of the night. Now they're - they say they're going to do the same thing again - talk directly to the American people and, of course, convince them that he's up to the job mentally and physically.

MOSLEY: The president and his allies have also been sharpening their attacks on Biden's son Hunter over his foreign business dealings. How do you think Biden might respond to that tonight?

LIASSON: Well, the deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, says, if we see attacks on Biden's family, we're going to point out that the president is just amplifying Russian disinformation. And one of his top advisers, Rudy Giuliani, has been working with someone that the U.S. intelligence community describes as a Russian asset.

MOSLEY: NPR's Mara Liasson.

Thank you so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.