It's almost debate time, where the oldest men ever to run for president are getting ready for a geriatric slog to prove who's more (or less) fit for the White House
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When Donald Trump and Joe Biden square off in their first debate later this month the mere act of showing up or uttering a fully formed sentence may be enough to declare victory. That's because their Sept. 29 showdown in Cleveland represents the first in-person interaction between the oldest two men to ever run against each other for president. It's a debate that has all the makings of an epic geriatric slug fest where the two campaigns are themselves engaged in dueling charges that the other's candidate is unsuited to hold the most powerful job on the planet. President Trump has been tarring his Democratic rival for years with allegations that he is mentally deteriorating, all while beating back questions of his own faltering health. Biden has yet to attack Trump in the same way — with the stark exception of promising in 2018 that he would have physically "beat the hell" out of Trump if they were in school together. For voters, the debate ahead promises to be a revealing opportunity to study both men as they stand side-by-side. Aides to the 77-year old Biden and the 74-year old Trump told Insider they expected uncomfortable health questions to be raised by the moderators, if not by the candidates' themselves. "You have two very old dudes with a lot of miles on their chassis, it's 100 percent fair the American public gets to look under the hood," said a Republican close to the Trump campaign. "If a man can't talk about his taxes, you think he's going to talk about his prostate exam?"
Who remembers Al Gore's sighs? Presidential debate moments have rarely centered on who landed the best punch. More likely to be remembered is who slipped or stumbled. Back in 2000, Al Gore's audible sighs during his debate came off as arrogant and dismissive of Republican nominee George W. Bush. President George H.W. Bush couldn't shake the negative headlines after he checked his watch while jousting in 1992 with Bill Clinton. And Richard Nixon, sporting a 5 o'clock shadow, famously looked unnerved during the very first televised US presidential debate in 1960 as he visibly sweated through his showdown against a younger John F. Kennedy. Here in 2020, the first Trump versus Biden debate comes amid rampant health questions surrounding both men — much of it fueled from inside the two opposing camps. Trump's inner circle has privately speculated that Biden may be taking special Alzheimer's drugs to perform well at campaign stops and on-stage. That chatter led Trump to say in late August that he would request Biden take a drug test before their first debate, according to one Trump adviser. Twitter on Monday also tagged a video posted by Trump's social media director Dan Scavino, which was fabricated to make it look like Biden slept through a television interview. The video spliced in footage of Biden appearing to sleep over 2011 footage of Harry Belafonte with his eyes closed and not responding when a reporter tried to ask him questions. The president made the issue even more relevant when he sent out a tweet denying he had "mini-strokes" or a "stroke." That came amid a headline that the Department of Homeland Security suppressed a report that Russia was spreading disinformation on the 77-year old Biden's health. Trump's attacks on Biden aren't coming from thin air. The former Delaware senator and vice president has a long history of his own tripping over his words that dates back decades. In 2008, he called Barack Obama "articulate" — which garnered accusations of racism. Last year, Biden flubbed a story about pinning a medal on a war hero. He became so distinctly associated with misspeaking that he dubbed himself a "gaffe machine". But Biden during his 2020 campaign has also opened up about his health issues, sharing his personal story about overcoming stuttering. And while Biden himself has avoided direct attacks on the president his supporters have cast Trump as mentally and physically unfit to serve as president.
Trump deflects health questions Trump enters the first debate with attacks on Biden's health having persistently deflected questions about his own fitness for years. The president avoided serving in the Vietnam War by claiming he had bone spurs, though his former lawyer Michael Cohen testified last year that Trump faked the malady to dodge the draft. When Trump ran in 2016, his doctor let Trump dictate a note claiming Trump was in top shape despite a steady diet of fast food, cable news and Twitter. In other words: Trump said Trump was in great shape. Almost immediately upon taking office, Trump's closest allies speculated that his Cabinet members would try to invoke the 25th Amendment which allows for the removal of an incapacitated president. An anonymous aide inside the White House recounted discussions of removing Trump because of his "instability" in an unsigned op-ed in 2018. Through it all, Trump's White House doctors have insisted he is in perfect shape. But an unexplained trip to Walter Reed Hospital in November 2019 renewed questions of Trump's health. Then came an anecdote in New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt's new book that Vice President Mike Pence had been placed on "standby" during that visit if Trump had to undergo a procedure. The focus on Trump's health only amplified this year after he struggled to lift a cup of water at the West Point graduation ceremony and then faltered down a ramp off the stage. Matthew Drudge, who helped Trump spread rumors of Hillary Clinton's health in 2016, posted a clip of Trump dragging his right leg on a trip two months ago. In July, Trump attempted to dismiss questions of his own faculties by stating he had passed a dementia screening test. He said he asked his doctors to administer the test to prove to the public he was in fine shape and rebut "fake news" questions.
Biden's strategy: Ignore the attacks on his health Biden has largely ignored Trump's baiting over his age, his speech patterns, and his health. As Trump tweeted a message about "Sleepy Joe Hiden" on Thursday morning, Biden was en route to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to meet with the family members of Jacob Blake. It appears the Biden strategy is to ignore Trump's attacks — and focus on big picture issues like the pandemic and the economy. And while Trump and his team had hoped Biden would flub his convention speech, he came out looking strong with a message about the dangers of presidential incompetence. Democratic insiders interviewed for this article said any talk about Biden's health could even be advantageous for the former vice president because it sets the bar very low for the first debate. The Biden campaign has not disclosed any updated fitness plans for the former vice president, even though Biden appears to be a bit slimmer — and more tan — than when he debated his primary challengers earlier this year. The campaign last year disclosed some of Biden's fitness regimen to both Men's Health and the New York Times. The Men's Health article noted Biden does weight lifting and cardio, including using a rowing machine and a Peloton. "His eating habits include fruit juice and Greek yogurt for breakfast and salads with protein—usually fish—for lunch and dinner. Biden also indulges in the occasional pasta and red sauce and ice cream," the story said. Officially, a campaign spokesman on Thursday called Trump's attacks on Biden's mental acuity "laughable" and a deflection of his own insecurities. "Donald Trump is an undisputed expert at projecting his own insecurities and weaknesses onto others, and his laughable attacks on Vice President Biden's fitness are a prime example," spokesman Mike Gwin said in a statement to Insider. "This is the same president who told Americans to inject themselves with disinfectant to cure themselves of COVID-19, and who repeatedly bragged about passing a simple dementia test. Instead of flailing and echoing smears from a Russian disinformation campaign designed to prop him up, Trump should finally focus on doing his job, and take long overdue steps to address the pandemic that's taken 180,000 American lives and wrecked the economy on his watch." The Biden campaign also pointed to three individual polls conducted in June and July that found voters found the Democratic nominee to be more mentally and physically able to serve as president than Trump. A July Fox News poll found 47% of registered voters polled said Biden had mental soundness to be an effective president, compared to Trump at 43%. A Monmouth poll showed Biden leading Trump 52% to 45% when those polled were asked whether they had the physical and mental stamina to carry out the job of the president. According to a December 2019 note from Biden's physician, Dr. Kevin O'Connor, Biden is an "active 77-year-old" who is being treated for non-valvular atrial fibrillation — but does not take medication. A recent echo-cardiogram found no signs of heart failure, and Biden takes a drug to prevent blood clots. Biden also takes medication to control his lipid levels, which remain low, his doctor wrote. Biden also suffers from occasional symptoms of acid reflux, "primarily having to clear his throat more often," the doctor wrote. He uses over the counter Nexium for that ailment, the note reads. Biden, too, suffers from seasonal allergies and takes both a nasal spray and over the counter allergy pill for symptoms. "He does not use any tobacco products, does not drink alcohol at all, and he works out at least five days per week," O'Connor wrote. The doctor wrote that Biden has no history of any neurological disorder, but he noted that "the most note-worthy" health incident the former vice-president experienced was an intracranial hemorrhage from a cerebral aneurysm in 1988, which was repaired surgically. "He has never had any recurrences of any aneurysms," the note says. "Vice President Biden is a healthy, vigorous, 77-year-old male, who is fit to successfully execute the duties of the Presidency, to include those as Chief Executive, Head of State and Commander in Chief," O'Connor wrote in his note.
Setting debate expectations When Trump and Biden debate in Cleveland, the rhetorical stage will have already been set through a game of lowering and raising expectations to shade how the public (and the press) view their performances. Trump's blasting away at Biden's alleged frailties may have the opposite effect of making it easier for Biden to come out looking strong, Trump advisers told Insider. "I think the bar has been lowered so much for Biden," said one adviser to the president. As long as he shows up it's gonna be considered an enormous victory." The Trump adviser brushed off questions of the president's vigor by arguing he is working harder than ever on the campaign trail with stamina akin to his successful 2016 bid. Another Republican close to the president's campaign said that Trump and his team already stumbled once by hitting Biden repeatedly on his health only to see the Democrat upstage them with a strong acceptance speech last month at the party's national convention. "Look at how they mishandled the Biden speech, when he made it to the podium he made it look like he won," the Republican said. Officially, the Trump campaign's focus has been to tamp down expectations for their candidate ahead of the first in-person face off with Biden. "If you asked the president," Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said on a call with reporters Wednesday, "he would say he is preparing for the debates by running the country as president." Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: What makes 'Parasite' so shocking is the twist that happens in a 10-minute sequence
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