Trump vs. Clinton: Debate Will Mark Biggest Moment of Election

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -

Democrat Hillary Clinton, suddenly vulnerable in the presidential race, is under pressure to deliver a strong performance against Republican Donald Trump in their first debate on Monday, a moment that could be the most consequential yet of the 2016 election.

Political veterans involved in preparing for past presidential debates said Clinton should drive home how she would run the country during uncertain times and draw a contrast as the steady, experienced alternative to the untested Trump. For his part, Trump needed to show enough gravitas to convince skeptics that he is ready to be commander in chief, they said.

The 90-minute face-off at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, the first of three debates, takes place at a time when Clinton’s once-comfortable lead in opinion polls over Trump star has evaporated.

History shows that a single bad debate performance can alter the trajectory of a U.S. presidential race. Reuters/Ipsos polling shows about 20 percent of the electorate remains undecided, far higher at this stage in the campaign than the 12 percent undecided four years ago.

The audience for the debate is expected to be a record, easily surpassing the record 46.2 million households who watched the first encounter between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, according to the Nielsen ratings company.

Anita Dunn, who helped President Barack Obama prepare for debates against Republican nominee John McCain in 2008, said Obama succeeded at their first debate by steering the conversation repeatedly back to the struggling U.S. economy even though the event was supposed to be about foreign policy.

She said she expected Clinton to try to exploit Trump’s weaknesses and emphasize her strengths. “The contrast between them is what you want to hone,” she said.

The debate will be the best opportunity for two candidates, both widely seen by voters as untrustworthy, to put to rest questions about their fitness for the White House with the Nov. 8 election fast approaching.

Clinton is spending most of this week in debate preparations with a small circle of top aides at her home in Chappaqua, New York.

Clinton aides said she is preparing for two scenarios: One in which Trump is measured and serious, and another in which he is freewheeling and makes inflammatory personal attacks.

Trump relied on his famed spontaneity to fire off one-line zingers to dismantle 16 Republican rivals during the primaries, dispatching “low-energy” Jeb Bush or “lying Ted” Cruz and “little Marco” Rubio. He has repeatedly called Clinton “crooked Hillary” at rallies.

“You’re just not sure who is going to show up,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a senior adviser to Clinton. “He may be aggressive or he may lay back. That’s hard to game out necessarily so I would say most of the focus is on what points does she want to make.”

A Republican source close to the campaign said former Fox News Chief Executive Roger Ailes has been coaching Trump but that Trump does not want to be over-prepared.

Trump spokesman Jason Miller said Trump is& preparing& for the debates but “there’s nobody who’s playing the role of Hillary Clinton.”

“Mr. Trump prepares for everything that he does,” he said.