By Amie Parnes – – – – – – –
In closed-door sessions, the Democratic presidential nominee is prepping for their first presidential debate on Monday against a few different people playing the role of Trump.
The role-playing games with different surrogates are “for his multiple personalities,” one Clinton confidant said of the controversial GOP nominee.
The Clinton campaign is playing coy about who is starring as Trump in the debate prep.
One source said a few Clinton insiders are helping with different lines of questioning, but it is not clear if one individual is the main Trump, with others pitching in.
Some Clinton supporters have suggested Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) could play the role of the real estate magnate and reality TV star, but an inside source said there aren’t any members of Congress involved.
Clinton and her team are preparing for every possible punch, every possible slight and every possible pivot from their unpredictable opponent because, allies say, there’s no telling which Trump will emerge.
Record ratings are forecast for the clash, in part because of what networks saw during the GOP primaries, where the billionaire belittled his opponents and debate moderators.
Clinton is readying herself for the Trump who responded to questions about sexism from Fox News’s Megyn Kelly by insulting Rosie O’Donnell at the first Republican primary debate.
When she takes the stage on Monday at Hofstra University in New York, Clinton could face an opponent willing to bring up the Clintons’ marriage and the suicide of former Bill Clinton aide Vince Foster.
At the same time, the Clinton camp is preparing for the more subdued Trump who has often been on display since hiring veteran GOP operative Kellyanne Conway as his campaign manager.
“The campaign has done a good job of mirroring his various character traits,” the confidant said.
Clinton allies acknowledged that the role-playing can only go so far.
“There’s only one person who can do Donald, and that’s Donald,” the confidant said.
Clinton’s campaign and her allies are also doing their share of setting expectations. They want to make sure the media doesn’t see the Democrat as the clear favorite on the debate stage despite her experience and success.
“I think some commentators underestimate Trump’s capabilities,” one longtime Clinton adviser said. “He’s a television professional, and that counts for much in such an environment.”
The preparation for the debate intensified at the end of August as Clinton came off the campaign trail to get ready for what might be the most pivotal moment left in the race.
Clinton has been poring over briefing books and studying up on Trump’s theatrics, according to Clinton allies and surrogates, preparing for the ultimate Trump show.
“It’s a performance art, and anyone who doesn’t believe that is fooling themselves,” said one Clinton surrogate.
While he may not have the smoothness and gravitas of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the adviser said, “he certainly won’t be” the sweaty and pale Richard Nixon that appeared in 1960 versus John F. Kennedy.
“He’s always shown an ability to command the stage, which he did very well during the Republican primaries,” the adviser said. “What is different for him is that this is one-on-one, so he won’t be able to lay low as he sometimes did during the multi-candidate Republican debates. There’s no place to hide.”
The debate comes at a difficult time in the race for Clinton, who has seen her lead in polls sag late this summer.
Clinton gave Trump ammunition by saying that half of his supporters fell into a “basket of deplorables” — something she had to walk back. She was then videotaped being helped into a van while leaving a 9/11 memorial. The campaign later revealed a pneumonia diagnosis, which took her off the campaign trail for days and allowed Trump to further question her stamina.
“Let’s face it, she’s been taking a beating in the past couple of weeks, and this is her moment to stop it,” Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, said of the debate.
He argued the three presidential debates will be more consequential than the 2012 contests between President Obama and Mitt Romney because of the percentage of undecided voters.
“It’s a key moment for her while she’s side by side with Trump because she can come across as cool, calm and collected while Trump is bouncing off the walls. That’s the picture you want to paint,” he said.
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and Clinton surrogate who served as communications director to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said Clinton needs to “prepare for the worst.”
“One of the keys here in debate prep is finding someone who is going to be as crude and coarse as Trump can be especially when he hits the real low moments,” Manley said. “She can’t play it safe. … It does no good to have someone lob softballs because this is a guy who has got absolutely no scruples or morals.”
“I’m sure they hope Trump will show up and be on relatively good behavior, but I’m sure they’re prepping for the worst,” Manley continued. “Someone has got to sit there and try to provoke her by raising all kinds of ugly questions. I don’t envy these guys. How you prepare for this guy is absolutely beyond me.”