NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) — With new debate rules and less than two weeks to go until Election Day, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are set to clash on stage for the last time Thursday night in Nashville, a city feeling the effects of the pandemic.
It is the final showdown in a chaotic debate season of the presidential election. After a first debate marked by shouting and a canceled second debate after Trump contracted the coronavirus, it is the voters’ last chance to see the two major party candidates on stage together as they field questions from moderator Kristen Welker, co-anchor of NBC’s “Weekend Today.”
The event starts at 8 p.m. Central and is expected to run for 90 minutes. Welker said she is planning on asking the candidates about six topics: fighting Covid-19, American families, race in America, climate change, national security and leadership.
Biden and Trump will debate at Nashville’s Belmont University, a nondenominational Christian university that was started in 1890 as a college for women and was once associated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
This is not the first time the college or the city – known for hot chicken as well as being the music industry’s mecca and a top destination for bachelorette parties – hosted a presidential debate. In 2008, Belmont hosted the town hall-style presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain.
But there are changes this time. Tennessee and Nashville are experiencing rising rates of Covid-19 and the state’s governor, Republican Bill Lee, is in quarantine even though he tested negative because a member of his security detail tested positive for the virus.
Earlier this week, the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored the nine presidential debate seasons since 1988, announced a tweak to the rules: each candidate would have an uninterrupted two minutes to answer each question before the debate moves to an open discussion because their opponent’s microphone will be muted.
It’s a change John Koch, director of debate at Vanderbilt University hopes will lead to a more substantive debate. The debates are the “Super Bowl of politics,” he said, and 73.1 million Americans tuned in to watch the first one more than a month ago, according to an estimate by Nielson.
“It’s really about information,” Koch said in an interview with Courthouse News. “So I'm hopeful them having two uninterrupted minutes will allow us to become more informed about issues.”
It’s unlikely that the debate will lead to a major shakeup in the race, which many polls show Biden leading. According to the U.S. Elections Project, about 45 million Americans have already voted early.
Being held just 11 days before polls close, the debate is one of the closest such contests to Election Day, Koch said, which gives the candidates a national stage to make their last elevator pitch to voters.
Typically, an incumbent candidate like Trump will face a referendum of sorts on their record, Koch said, but Biden also has a record from 47 years in politics.
“I think you'll see a focus on what both of them perceive their accomplishments to be, what both of them perceive their opponent’s flaws to be in their records,” Koch said, “and then I'm interested in seeing how they sum that all up for the final campaign message for why we should vote for them and against their opponent.”
The Biden campaign did not return a request for comment.
Heading into the debate, the Trump campaign has criticized the debate topics, accusing the Committee on Presidential Debates and the moderator Welker, NBC’s White House correspondent that has covered the Trump and Obama administrations, of political bias.
Describing Trump as the outsider and Biden as the “ultimate insider,” Ken Farnaso, a spokesperson with the Trump campaign, told Courthouse News in a statement Trump will hope to communicate with voters that the president is rebuilding the economy of the United States while raising questions about Biden’s ties to China.
“The clear message is that President Trump has accomplished more in 47 months than Joe Biden has in 47 years. … The key question at the end is if Joe Biden has been compromised by the Communist Party of China,” Farnaso said.
Butch Spyridon, CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation, said there will be road closures around Belmont University, poll banners are up and some hotels are offering buttons commemorating the debate.
Thanks to the pandemic, visitor spending is down $3.5 billion in Music City from mid-March to mid-October, Spyridon said.
Twelve years ago, about 3,000 members of the media visited Nashville for the 2008 debate. This time, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation expects a third of that number to travel to the city to cover the event, according to Spyridon.
Still, as evening falls and cameras point to the debate stage, the contest will be broadcast to a watching world and nation.
“For Belmont, for Nashville and even for Tennessee to have this kind of high-profile moment in this particular point in time is maybe one of the few bright spots in the last few months,” Spyridon said.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.