With just 35 days until the US election, President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden are barrelling into their crucial first debate, the most pivotal moment so far in a race that has remained stubbornly unchanged in the face of historic tumult.
Both men huddled with aides in the final hours before the debate on Tuesday, which will offer the candidates their biggest national stage to outline starkly different visions for a country facing multiple crises.
Americans are both fearful and impatient about the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and cost millions of jobs, and many are concerned about racial justice, protest violence or both.
Each side hoped the debate would energise its own base of supporters even as the candidates compete over the slim slice of undecided voters who could decide the election.
Biden will step onto the Cleveland stage holding leads in the polls – significant in national surveys, close in some battleground states – and looking to expand his support among suburban voters, women and seniors.
Surveys show the president has lost significant ground among those groups since 2016, but Biden faces his own questions encouraged by Trump’s withering attacks.
Trump will have arguably his best chance to try to reframe the campaign as a choice between candidates and not a referendum over his handling of the virus that has killed more people in America than any other nation.
Americans, according to polling, have soured on his leadership in the crisis, and the president has struggled to land consistent attacks on Biden.
Leaving the White House for Cleveland, Trump pumped his fist at supporters gathered on the White House lawn but did not address reporters.
He spent the morning in informal debate preparations while a more formal session was set for the afternoon once he arrived in Ohio.
Biden held an umbrella to ward off the Delaware rain as he boarded a new, bigger campaign plane en route to Cleveland. He, too, did not address reporters.
Though some Trump aides involved in the preparations urged the president to adopt a measured tone while selling his own accomplishments, Trump has told advisers he is preparing an all-out assault on Biden, claiming that the former senator’s 47 years in Washington have left him out of touch and that his family, namely his son Hunter, has benefited from corruption.
Both sides looked to one-up each other in the hours before the debate.
Biden released his 2019 tax returns just days after the blockbuster revelations about Trump’s long-hidden tax history, including that he paid only $US750 ($A1053) a year in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and nothing in many other years. The Bidens paid nearly $US300,000 ($A421,203) in taxes in 2019.
Meanwhile, trying to hammer home a claim that Biden is not up to the job of president, Trump’s campaign pushed out a number of pre-debate accusations, including that the former vice president asked for numerous breaks during the 90-minute debate and had backed out of a search meant to rule out that either man was wearing an earpiece from which he could be fed answers.
The Biden campaign denied the accusations and, in a conference call Tuesday afternoon, chided reporters for biting on a Trump gambit.
The president’s handling of the coronavirus was likely to dominate much of the debate. The pandemic’s effects were in plain sight, with the candidates’ lecterns spaced far apart, all of the guests in the small crowd tested and the traditional opening handshake scrapped.