New York: Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump will face off for the first time on Monday in a presidential debate that could rank as one of the most watched, highly anticipated political showdowns in US history.
The tight race for the White House and the unpredictable clash in styles between well-known but polarizing foes has generated wide interest in the potentially pivotal encounter, which comes six weeks before the November 8 election after a campaign that has stretched over more than a year.
The gap between the two candidates in recent national opinion polls has narrowed in the past week, with the latest Reuters/Ipsos polling showing Clinton ahead by 4 percentage points, with 41 per cent of likely voters.
The size of the television-viewing audience was expected to challenge the presidential debate record of 80 million Americans who watched 1980’s encounter between Democratic President Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan. Some commentators forecast Super Bowl-sized viewership of around 100 million.
Viewers will be assessing the clash from the moment both candidates take the stage. It will be the first time Clinton and Trump go toe-to-toe.
Unlike the single-party debates held during the nominating process, the audience will be asked to remain silent and not applaud or respond to the candidates’ answers. The debate will be divided into six 15-minute segments.
Clinton won a coin toss, and chose to take the first question. She will have two minutes to answer, after which Trump will be given equal time. Trump will then be given the first question at the beginning of the next segment.
The 90-minute debate will begin at 9 pm (0100 GMT on Tuesday) at Hofstra University on New York state’s Long Island. It is the first of three planned presidential debates. The White House race has so far had little discernible effect on the market, but that may soon change.
Ahead of the debate, the stock market on Monday showed jitters. A measure of trading volatility, also known as Wall Street’s “fear gauge,” was up 14 per cent in early afternoon trading, its biggest rise in nearly two weeks.
“Investors are acting extremely nervous with regards to the debate … and it highlights the fact that the markets are not focusing on the health of the economy, interest rates and geopolitical events,” said Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist at Boston Private Wealth.
Both Trump and Clinton, who polls show are the least liked White House candidates in modern history, hope to use the debate to erase lingering voter doubts and address campaign-trail weaknesses.
Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein were not invited to participate in the debate because neither had obtained at least 15 per cent in national polls, the threshold was established to qualify.
The volatile Trump, a New York businessman and former reality television star, will get a chance to show a depth and steadiness worthy of a credible commander in chief, while the cautious Clinton will be able to try to connect directly with voters who do not trust her, strategists said.
But Trump, a political newcomer who has often shown more affinity for put-downs than policy, could benefit from lower expectations from voters.
“There is no question it’s a lower bar for Trump,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who is now a political scientist at the University of Southern California. “He doesn’t have to be brilliant, he just can’t be too bombastic.”
The stakes are enormous. The debate comes as polls show Clinton’s once-sizable lead over Trump has evaporated amid more questions about her family foundation and her use of a private email server while secretary of state under Democratic President Barack Obama.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday showed half of America’s likely voters would rely on the debates to help them make their choice. More than half, 61 per cent, were hoping for a civil debate and were not interested in the bitterness shown on the campaign trail.