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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the first 2020 presidential campaign debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in Cleveland on Sept. 29, 2020.BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters

Donald Trump entered the presidential debate as the underdog, trailing badly, needing to do something to change the arc of the campaign.

It didn’t happen. Once again, Mr. Trump came across as the leader of a faction, not a nation. His raging-bull performance had no outreach beyond his hyperpartisan core.

His challenger, Joe Biden, hardly put in a star turn. But while looking bewildered at times, he survived the manic onslaught, clearing the low bar Republicans had set for him with their charges that he was a senile stumblebum.

The debate was a shameful, disgraceful spectacle descending from the opening gun into an avalanche of insults, a display of juvenility that served as an embarrassment to Americans, further debasing their democracy.

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Democrats wanted Mr. Biden to put Mr. Trump’s character on trial in this debate. He didn’t have to. Mr. Trump did so himself, succumbing to his venomous pathologies. Instead of rebuking charges that he is a racist, he appallingly and disgustingly stoked them, refusing to condemn white supremacists. Instead he called upon Proud Boys, a far-right, violent group, to “stand back and stand by,” as if giving them a call to arms.

His bitterly divided country, in the throes of one of the most tumultuous years in its history, needs hope and healing. But Mr. Trump ominously warned of more chaos, refusing to say that he would ask his supporters to stay calm until an election result was validated. Instead he said that mail-in voting would lead to a fraudulent result. “It will not end well,” he said of the election.

The debate provided more evidence that Mr. Trump is incapable of pivoting from his one-note, attack-dog approach. Polls suggest that this will sink him. He is behind Mr. Biden at this stage of the race by more than twice the margin by which he trailed Hillary Clinton in 2016, which was three percentage points.

A combative Donald Trump faced Joe Biden at a presidential debate marked by personal insults and Trump's repeated interruptions Tuesday night. Catch up on key moments around Trump's taxes, the handling of COVID-19 and healthcare.

Reuters

Mr. Biden did little to elevate the tone of the proceedings, getting dragged into the smearfest. He called Mr. Trump a clown and a liar and the worst president ever. “Will you shut up, man?” he said at one point. “It’s hard to get any word in with this clown – excuse me, this person.”

The first debate I covered as a journalist was the one in 1980 between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. What a contrast. It was dignified and civil. At one point Mr. Reagan looked at Mr. Carter and said, “There you go again.” It was the harshest broadside landed.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden needed an authoritative moderator to keep things under control. The normally effective Chris Wallace was not that. He lost control early, letting the candidates repeatedly speak over one another and never regained it.

A stronger stage presence than Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump did have some effective moments. He defended well his plan to ram through a new justice of the Supreme Court. He skirted past the charge that he has paid next to nothing in federal taxes. On law and and order, he repeatedly asked his challenger to name one law enforcement group that supports him. Mr. Biden couldn’t.

But Mr. Biden, who was for the most part lucid, parried most of his attacks, including attempts to portray him as a scary leftist. When Mr. Trump referenced the socialist policies of Bernie Sanders, Mr. Biden countered that “I am the Democratic Party.”

Though trailing the Democrat by a vast margin among female voters, Mr. Trump offered nothing to close the gap. Meanwhile, Mr. Biden pressed him hard on the dangers to abortion rights and to health care that a conservative-dominated Supreme Court poses.

On what many see as the defining issue of the campaign, the coronavirus, Mr. Trump repeated his familiar arguments that he had done a great job while charging that Mr. Biden would destroy the country by putting it under another lockdown.

Having mystifyingly declined to put forth a new agenda for the next four years, Mr. Trump missed another opportunity in this debate, leaving his supporters with nothing to chew on except old venom-drenched attack lines.

Indications were that a great many disgusted viewers tuned out of this fiasco early because they could see it was only serving up predictable tribal warfare. Given that voters are so locked-in to their choices, the debate may not have changed many minds.

But that made the mudfight a good night for Mr. Biden. He’s not the one who has to change minds in order to win.

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