GWEN IFILL: For much of the nation, it’s must-see TV tonight, and up to 100 million Americans might be tuning in.
The Republican and Democratic presidential nominees meet on the same stage in Hempstead, New York, to debate.
John Yang is there, and he begins our coverage.
JOHN YANG: At Hofstra University, the stage is set. Earlier, stand-ins for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton helped technicians work out the final details. The showdown comes as polls show the two locked in a very tight race.
Clinton running mate Tim Kaine predicted tonight would be a big test for Trump.
SEN. TIM KAINE (D-Va.), Vice Presidential Nominee: Well, tonight, 90 minutes on stage, you know, there’s going to be a great opportunity for the American public to see if this guy can tell the truth, I mean, or maybe if he recognizes the truth.
JOHN YANG: Both sides are trying to manage expectations, Trump calling the moderators unfair, Clinton saying they should fact-check.
This morning, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway pushed back.
KELLYANNE CONWAY, Trump Campaign Manager: What bothers us, Mark, is the very public and very coordinated attempt to game the refs.
JOHN YANG: Between them, the nominees have participated in more than a dozen primary debates. But those were nothing like tonight.
Anita Dunn is a former Obama aide who helped the president prepare for the 2012 debates.
ANITA DUNN, Political Strategist: Secretary Clinton is a disciplined, experienced candidate who is going to spend her time really thinking about how she communicates her vision for the country in the face of her opponent being on stage with her. Donald Trump has said he doesn’t think he needs to do mock debates.
JOHN YANG: Brett O’Donnell was on President George W. Bush’s 2004 debate prep team.
BRETT O’DONNELL, Political Strategist: Donald Trump has done only primary debates where he was standing on the stage with multiple candidates. He hasn’t had to talk about policy issues continuously for 90 minutes. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has done extensive one-on-one debating. She did it in her Senate race. She did it when she ran for president against Barack Obama, and she did it against Bernie Sanders.
JOHN YANG: Tonight’s face-off is the first of three scheduled debates before Election Day.
In the latest NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll, 11 percent of voters said they were not committed to any candidate and that these debates would be very important in helping them make up their minds. So, with the national polls so close and key battleground states showing the race tightening in each of them, these debates could be crucial — Gwen, Judy.
GWEN IFILL: John, can I just ask you, as the witching hour approaches, how have these candidates really been preparing? We saw some of the spin in your piece about what — raising expectations, lowering expectations. What’s real?
JOHN YANG: I tell you, Gwen, the debate prep for the two candidates couldn’t be more different than the candidates themselves.
If this were college, Hillary Clinton would be the grind. She’s got briefing books. She’s had mock debates, working to time. She’s had someone sitting in for the moderator, someone sitting in for Donald Trump, a very close aide, Philippe Reines, who knows Clinton well and knows how to get under her skin and is comfortable doing it, just in case Donald Trump does it tonight.
And she has been working very hard. As a matter of fact, aides tell me even up until late this afternoon, she was still at it. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is sort of gliding in. He doesn’t want to overprepare for these. There have been no mock debates, no mock moderator, no mock Hillary Clinton, going over sort of broad themes and maybe a few practice answers, but not rehearsing.
He feels confident that he’s good at these things and just going to sort of almost wing it, maybe — Gwen, Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: John, give us a sense of the scene there at Hofstra University. Clearly, all eyes are on this debate tonight. What does it look like?
JOHN YANG: It’s a very — given the sets we have seen in the debates this primary season, with all sorts of glitz and lights and all sorts of things, it’s a very spartan stage, a little bit maybe even a throwback to the previous debates, the original debates.
The lecterns are identical, although in deference to the height difference, Secretary Clinton’s lectern a little bit lower than Donald Trump’s.
GWEN IFILL: John, how much have they been spending today trying to spin expectations in advance?
JOHN YANG: They’re already — the Clinton people are talking about how Trump has never really faced any tough questions about policy before, almost saying that he’s being graded on a curve, that if he were to come out and not be the bombastic Donald Trump that we have seen in the past, that that might be a win, that the pundits and others may declare it a victory.
Donald Trump already sort of gaming the refs, as it were, as Kellyanne Conway said in the piece, warning the moderator that the moderator shouldn’t be fact-checking the candidates, the candidates should be doing that.
And, incidentally, Janet Brown, the head of the Commission for Presidential Debates, sort of agrees with that. She said it’s not the moderator’s place to check the facts of each of the candidates. The candidates, she said, should be doing that to each other.
GWEN IFILL: Well, in a little while, we will see only three people on that stage trying to decide how that’s actually going to work itself out.
John Yang, thank you. See you later tonight.
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