Atlanta takes the stage in first presidential debate

As President Biden and former President Donald Trump take the stage inside CNN’s historic Techwood campus studio Thursday night, the Peach State will also be in the spotlight. 

“The stakes are very high,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat who represents the eastern Atlanta metro and suburbs. And so to have this debate in Atlanta will help drive turnout for this very crucial and extremely high-stakes election.” 

Georgia has become a critical battleground. With 16 electoral votes, the state’s explosive growth has drawn an increasingly diverse population with expanding Black, Latino and Asian American electorates. 

Trump won the state in 2016 by 5 percentage points against Hillary Clinton. Mr. Biden flipped it in 2020 with a narrow advantage of roughly 12,000 votes. Trump and 18 co-defendants were charged with attempting to overturn the 2020 results in a pending election interference case. In the current matchup, the former President leads Mr. Biden in Georgia  51%-48%, according to a CBS News battleground poll conducted earlier this year. 

“I think people miss his policies,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, of northwest Georgia, told CBS News. “Inflation is one that is, you know, affecting so many people in Georgia, especially rural Georgia.” 

Donald Trump And Joe Biden Participate In First Presidential Debate
Signage for a CNN presidential debate is seen outside of their studios at the Turner Entertainment Networks on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Andrew Harnik / Getty Images

This week both campaigns flooded the capital with voter outreach, press conferences, ads, surrogates and debate watch parties. The Biden-Harris campaign organized more than 1,600 events across battleground states. That included daily press briefings focused on issues ranging from reproductive rights to the economy, drawing local politicians like Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and former Republican Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan. The Trump campaign targeted some of its outreach to Black voters with Congressman Byron Donalds of Florida and Congressman Wesley Hunt of Texas “chopping it up” at barber shops and cigar lounges while RNC leaders made the rounds in Atlanta’s northern suburbs to discuss election integrity.

Sen. Lindsey Graham said it’s “good” the South is getting more political attention. The close Trump ally is making the two-hour drive from his home in neighboring South Carolina to attend. 

“I think this debate is going to be, the main focus is, is Biden capable? Graham said. “And if I were Trump, I’d talk about right track, wrong track. I don’t think he needs to be overly aggressive.” 

A CBS News poll finds 70% of likely Republican voters believe Trump should be “more polite” during the debate while 68% of Democratic voters say Mr. Biden should be “more forceful.” 63% of voters planning to tune in say they want to hear more about the candidate’s plans and policies.

“The American people need to see the difference,” said Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, of Delaware, who also serves as a Biden campaign co-chair. “They need to see the contrast between somebody who is working for the American people every single day and not just for themselves.”

“Be himself, be the compassionate, balanced, capable, insightful leader that he’s been,” added fellow campaign co-chair Sen. Chris Coons, who has been indirectly advising Mr. Biden’s team. The Delaware Democrat attended the first presidential debate in 2020 in Cleveland, which devolved into a combative shouting match between the two candidates and he hopes there isn’t a repeat.

“That was one of the most chaotic, incoherent performances by a candidate for President that I’ve ever seen,” Coons recalled. “Donald Trump, the then-President, blew through every possible norm and rule in how he conducted himself and it was breathtaking. There’s only one thing we know about him for sure is that he’s unpredictable.” 

Mr. Biden has been hunkered down at Camp David for nearly a week for a mix of informal and formal prep sessions with advisors, such as attorney Bob Bauer, playing the role of Trump. Trump has taken a less traditional approach holding policy discussions with leading experts and GOP lawmakers like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Eric Schmitt of Missouri. 

“It was a great meeting,” Schmitt told CBS News. “I think he’s going to do exceedingly well in the debate.”

The first-term Senator and former state Attorney General declined to get into specifics of the meeting and joked that he “did not” serve as a stand-in for Mr. Biden. 

“For the first time in anyone’s lifetime, you have two individuals who’ve served as President running against one another,” Schmitt said. “So you have a pretty unique opportunity to sort of review the tale of the tape. And I think everyone’s well aware that you know, we had a secure border. We were energy dominant. People were making more money.  So to the extent, I think the election is about that, I think that’s why you see President Trump leading a lot in the polls. As far as the debate goes….all these debates have a life of their own.”

Former vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine, of Virginia, understands the pressures that come with being on a national debate stage. He said Republicans shouldn’t underestimate the President’s performance, pointing back to his State of the Union address.  Kaine’s “one piece of advice” is for Mr. Biden to lean into “good economic news.”

Manufacturing jobs are up, unemployment is down, 401k’s up, infrastructure, we’re building again,” Kaine explained. “I think there’s a powerful economic message that the President can deliver and should. I think he’s going to do well.” 

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