In a cycle when televised presidential primary debates were setting ratings records, count on the general election meetings between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to reach an even wider audience.
The added voter interest will be stoked by the fact that for the first time a woman will occupy the position behind one of the lecterns, and a curiosity to see how businessman-turned-TV-personality-turned presidential candidate Trump performs.
The three presidential debates are his biggest opportunities to close the gap with Clinton, who is leading in polling averages in must-win states for the Republican.
Now, Trump likes to note that his style has gotten him this far in the campaign. But he didn't have a one-on-one contest during the primaries, noted Brett O'Donnell, a GOP consultant who has done debate preparation for George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney during their recent runs for the White House. Moreover, Trump was silent for long stretches while his GOP rivals traded barbs during some encounters.
“There's no place to hide in these debates,” said O'Donnell. "The question is: will he be able able to carry message across the entire debate? Debates are really about message, moments and audience.”
The risk, O'Donnell added, is that Trump "frequently flails. He's got to have some discipline for ninety minutes."
Trump has used a derisive, mocking tone when addressing Clinton on the stump with “lock her up” a popular GOP rallying cry at public events. Trump will have to calibrate that rhetoric during the debates.
"He's got to figure out how far he can go in attacking Hillary," O'Donnell said. “He’s got to keep the attacks substantive. They can’t be tied to her female identity. That would be crossing a line for him.”
Still, he added, “debates are about aggression. Audiences judge winners and losers based on who they think has been aggressive during the debate — and they’re judged pretty harshly. Trump has got to walk a fine line with how aggressive he is.”
The Clinton camp is working to find ways to rattle Trump, primarily by studying his history. Tony Schwartz, the co-author of “Art of the Deal” is in contact with the Clinton campaign.
Carrie Giddins Pergram, a Democratic communications consultant who has done candidate debate preparation, noted there’s a double standard when it comes to candidate aggression — something Clinton has to be aware of.
“The double standard [is] that many men claim that female candidates are shrill when they speak emphatically and sound strong,” she said. “The key for Clinton will be to control her facial expressions and her temper, while Trump tries to knock her off her game with outlandish claims and maneuvers.”
Those kinds of outlandish claims carry a significant risk if Trump deploys them — and he’s likely to, Giddins Pergram predicted. In response, Clinton must avoid taking the bait.
“[The insults] will come, it's where Trump has lived to get to where he is today,” she said. “She can engage him with a response, if necessary, but a win will be him being the crazy clip that goes around the next day and her being less exciting, but presidential.”
Appearing presidential is also something Trump will have to work on. "Voters ask things like, are you competent? Are you prepared? And they ask, do you share their values?," said O'Donnell. "They look at these debates to get an unvarnished look at the candidates."
Meanwhile, both candidates will been watching the Commission on Presidential Debates in the coming weeks as its expected to unveil the moderators post-Labor Day. But Trump may have more riding on the selections. “Once the moderators are set, he's really got to figure out how to handle them,” O'Donnell said.
He pointed to how Mitt Romney famously "mishandled" CNN’s Candy Crowley in the second presidential debate with President Obama in 2012. That debate included Romney uttering the line, “binders full of women,” which produced an endless stream of Internet memes and mocking commentary directed at the former Massachusetts governor.
“Trump loves to fight with the media, but he’s got to avoid having too much engagement,” O'Donnell said. “He's got to remember the audience.”
Despite Clinton’s experience, O'Donnell said Trump could still come out the winner in one of the three encounters, which are slated for Sept. 26 at New York’s Hofstra University, Oct. 9 at Washington University in St. Louis and Oct. 19 in the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“She’s done this before,” he said, “but I don’t think she’s been an extremely formidable opponent.”
Whether there will be lessons for future female candidates from Clinton’s performances against Trump, Giddins Pergram was skeptical.
“This year has tossed everything I teach out the window,” she said. “What hopefully everyone can learn is how to be measured and calm in the face of attacks from a bully.”