The first Biden-Trump debate of 2024 features new fights between old rivals

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WASHINGTON — Four years ago, Joe Biden rehearsed for debates at a lectern in the basement of his Delaware home. Now, as president, he can pick a room at the White House, his retreat at Camp David, Maryland, or almost anywhere else in the country.

But as much as the atmospherics have changed around Biden — whether it's the room he's in, the ups and downs of the economy or the outbreak of wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East — his preparations for rematch debates with former President Donald Trump promise to be remarkably consistent with his 2020 sessions.

Trump is reluctant to practice for debates — much less engage in the full mock dry runs familiar to most presidential candidates — according to three people close to him.

"What's that?" a Trump aide replied with dry humor when asked about Trump's plans to prepare.

And yet on June 27 — the first time two men who have held the Oval Office meet in a televised presidential debate — they will have four years' worth of fresh material to battle over. Trump's primary message is that he is strong and Biden is weak. Biden's is that he cares about Americans while Trump cares only about himself.

Trump advisers say he doesn't need formal rehearsals because he spends so much time interacting with voters and the media — at rallies like the one he held in the Bronx, New York, last week, at pop-ins at local eateries, in one-on-one interviews and in near-daily news conferences at the Manhattan courthouse where he's on trial.

Biden's "puppet-masters are in full panic trying to figure out how to prop up their feeble candidate," Trump spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said in a statement. "In contrast, President Trump is out delivering 90-minute speeches to tens of thousands of supporters and taking on tough interview after tough interview, talking about how we're going to bring back the great Trump economy and once again secure our borders."

Both candidates run the risk of making the debate about themselves — or even too much about their records — when persuadable voters will be listening to hear about their plans for the future. That's a particularly acute peril for Trump, who rarely passes up a chance to falsely assert that he won the last election.

"One of the issues here for him is how much is he talking about 2017 through 2020, his own record, how much is he talking about Joe Biden [and] how much is he talking in a forward-looking way about his own second term?" said a person familiar with his past debate prep sessions. "Time will tell if he is very forward-leaning. I would certainly recommend it."

Biden advisers say his campaign will lay the groundwork for the first debate through paid ads, media coverage and grassroots communications designed to highlight Trump's appointment of Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn abortion protections, his embrace of election conspiracy theories and his efforts to overturn his 2020 defeat, as well as what they say is an economic agenda that would "make his rich friends richer and jack up costs for the middle class."

"In the month leading up to that first debate, the Biden-Harris campaign will zero in on Trump’s dangerous campaign promises and unhinged rhetoric," Biden campaign chair Jen O'Malley Dillon wrote in a memo last week. "We will make sure that the voters who will decide this election are reminded of the chaos and harm Trump caused as president — and why they booted him out four years ago."

Comparing their presidencies is one lens through which they can be expected to filter battles over the economy, abortion rights, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the future of American governance.

The White House and the Biden campaign have yet to finalize the roster of debate-prep participants. But Ron Klain, a former Biden White House chief of staff who keeps a file on every question asked at past presidential debates, will reprise a role he's played as a prep guru for several Democratic presidential candidates.

A source close to Biden said the list of participants is likely to include White House aides Anita Dunn, Mike Donilon, Steve Ricchetti and Bruce Reed; O'Malley Dillon; and campaign co-chair Cedric Richmond. This source also mentioned author Jon Meacham and Michael Sheehan, who coaches Democratic candidates on oratory style, as possible prep helpers.

It is not yet clear whether Biden lawyer Bob Bauer, who played Trump in 2020 practice sessions, will do that again.

Klain and Dunn both declined to comment for this article, citing their desire to keep the entire effort private.

"We're not going to discuss," Dunn said in a text message.

To the extent that Trump can be corralled into modified prep sessions, they are likely to be very informal discussions of issues and tactics.

"Conventional preparations are not something that he thinks he needs to do," said the person familiar with past debate sessions. "Part of it is him wanting to save his best performance for the performance. Part of it is him thinking, 'I’ve got this.'"

In their first debate in 2020, Trump took criticism — even from some fellow Republicans — for repeatedly interrupting Biden and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News. Biden laid something of a trap by interjecting in the opening minutes of the debate, which appeared to annoy Trump and goad him into becoming hyper-aggressive.

When Biden pressed him to disown the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group, Trump told them to "stand back and stand by" in the stretch run to the election. He oddly accused Biden of wanting to get rid of cows.

At their second and final debate in Nashville, Tennessee, in October of that year, Trump's demeanor was more traditional, and the two men fought more over substance than style.

Trump's inner circle still includes some of the people who helped focus him on the 2020 debates. For example, communications strategist Jason Miller is a senior adviser to his campaign, and Stephen Miller, a top policy adviser in Trump's White House, remains close to him. But two of Trump's three senior advisers, Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, weren't in top positions the last time around.

Gone from the debate-prep crowd are then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows; former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Bill Stepien, who was Trump's 2020 campaign manager; and Hope Hicks, a longtime Trump aide who isn't working on the campaign.

It's not clear how much debates affect the outcomes of presidential elections that involve billions of dollars in advertising by campaigns and their allies. But they are rare opportunities for voters to see the candidates side by side, countering each other's arguments on issues and character.

Trump and Biden have agreed to face each other a second time, on Sept. 10, a schedule Biden proposed that leaves 2½ months between meetings.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com