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4 takeaways from the last presidential debate of 2020

The mute button was moot, President Trump mostly looked backward and Joe Biden brushed off personal attacks in the final presidential faceoff of the cycle.

It was probably as normal as things could get this election cycle.

After their last faceoff turned into a name-calling shouting match, Thursday night’s presidential debate in Nashville moderated by NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker resembled a much more traditional matchup and provided one the clearest contrasts yet between the two candidates on everything from race to the environment.

While President Donald Trump went into the final debate signaling he was looking for theatrics — baselessly accusing the moderator of being biased and bringing as his debate guest a former business partner of Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s son — the candidates stuck mostly to the topics at hand and allowed each other their allotted time to speak.

Trump was able to land many of the attacks his advisers had hoped he’d use against Biden during the first debate — and Biden came prepared with counterpunches while making a case for what he’d do with four years as president.

Here are four key takeaways from the debate:

Mute button effect

After Trump refused to follow the agreed-upon rule of letting each candidate have two minutes to respond to questions, breaking into Biden's responses throughout their first faceoff, the Commission on Presidential Debates threatened in advance of the event to cut off the microphone of any candidate trying to interrupt the other during this go-around.

Trump had called the plan unfair and suggested he would keep talking even if his mic were muted. But in the end, he may have benefited from the restraint the threat provided, coming off less like a bully than he had during the last debate.

Trump’s advisers had also urged him to give more time to let Biden speak, predicting that the Democratic nominee would make a gaffe or fumble a response, and the president seemed to be heeding that advice. But Biden didn’t make the sort of disqualifying error Trump and his allies have been counting on.

Trump looking back, Biden looking ahead

While Trump gave a stronger performance than he had in the prior debate, many of his answers were spent looking backward rather than forward, a tendency his advisers have urged him to avoid. Unlike in 2016, when Trump had a clear pitch to the American people on what he would do if elected — build the wall, drain the swamp, bring back jobs — he has failed to crystalize a second-term agenda into any similarly succinct and clear message this time around.

Trump repeatedly returned to defending his actions over the past four years and complaining about how he had been mistreated by others — playing the role of the victim at times rather than a defender of the American people. He blamed individuals “deep inside the IRS” for auditing his taxes and, unprompted, complained about the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the last election.

When asked what he would do to guide the nation through the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump spent most his time touting what he had done, avoiding the opportunity to talk about a plan going forward as cases spike, and claiming a vaccine is coming in just a few weeks, even though his own health officials have said it won’t be widely available until well into next year.

Biden came with more prepared talking points about his specific plans for what he would do if elected, from heavily encouraging mask usage to providing more subsidies for alternative energy sources and less for oil and gas.

Trump’s closing argument on Biden

After four years in office, Trump advisers have said there is likely little he can do to change voters minds about himself. But they have been looking for the chance to change minds about Biden and Thursday night was their best — and likely final — opportunity to do so.

Trump came ready to lay into Biden over his son’s business dealings in the primetime venue, accusing Biden and his family of getting rich off the vice presidency calling them being "like a vacuum cleaner. They're sucking up money."

But Biden came prepared and looked to turn the issue back on Trump, rattling off reports of Trump’s questionable business dealings and hammering the president over his decision not to release his tax returns. Biden called the reports on his son’s business dealings Russian disinformation.

Trump didn't stick to corruption claims; he also repeatedly painted Biden as a career politician who had failed to get anything done during his decades in Washington, repeatedly asking the former vice president why he hasn’t gotten more done during the Obama administration.

“You were vice president along with Obama as your president, your leader, for eight years. Why didn't you get it done?” Trump asked Biden of criminal justice reform. “You had eight years to get it done. Now you're saying you're going to get it done because you're all talk and no action, Joe.”

Biden mostly avoided taking the bait and repeatedly swatted down the attacks with a brief: “Not true.”

The effect on the race?

With Biden consistently holding a lead in virtually every battleground state, it was up to Trump to change the dynamics of the race. While the president had a stronger performance than the last debate, he stuck to familiar talking points on everything from the coronavirus to race — areas where voters already disapprove of his handling.

For Biden, Democratic strategists said going in that he didn’t need to change minds, he just needed to get through the night without making any disqualifying errors, which he avoided.

With at least 42 million ballots already cast and only a small fraction of voters saying their minds could be changed, any effect on the election could be minimal. Still, with Trump and Biden running neck and neck in a number of key battleground states, a boost on the margins could be all that’s needed to tip the scales in one candidate’s favor.

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