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Trump, Biden head into first debate with presidency on the line

The 90-minute clash on Tuesday night is a chance for Americans to finally see Donald Trump, 74, and Joe Biden, 77, go head to head.

This combination of file pictures created on 28 September 2020 shows Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden(L) speaking in Tampa, Florida, on 15 September 2020 and US President Donald Trump speaking during an event for black supporters at the Cobb Galleria Centre on 25 September 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. Picture: AFP.

CLEVELAND - There'll be no handshake, but venom to spare when President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden meet in Cleveland on Tuesday for the first of three televised debates that could shake up an already volatile race for the White House.

COVID-19 restrictions will give the debate moderated by Fox News star Chris Wallace a streamlined look with a smaller audience. Naturally, there won't be the once standard - even if occasionally forced - show of goodwill in shaking hands as the rivals go on stage.

What the 90-minute clash will have is a chance for Americans finally to see Trump, 74, and Biden, 77, go head to head.

With Trump claiming Biden is virtually brain dead - "Biden doesn't know he's alive" - and Biden branding the president "a toxic presence", it won't be for the faint hearted.

Significantly behind in the polls, Trump is in fighting mode, embarking on an endurance-testing schedule of rallies in key battlegrounds several times a week.

Biden, though, comes hoping to press his advantage.

And he arrives aided by The New York Times' publication of a report purporting to reveal the contents of Trump's deeply secret tax returns - finding that the self-proclaimed billionaire and champion of the working class avoids paying almost all federal income taxes.

HARD AND LOW

Trump, who fancies his skills as a verbal pugilist, is expected to hit hard and low.

For months he has painted Biden as senile. As the debate approached he increasingly focused on his claim that Biden takes performance-enhancing drugs.

Biden has laughed off the suggestion, but Trump, a past master at getting slurs to stick to his opponents, is doubling down.

"Joe Biden just announced that he will not agree to a Drug Test. Gee, I wonder why?" Trump tweeted Monday.

Biden's deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield responded in kind, saying that if Trump wants the debate to be conducted through "urine" samples, "he can".

Trump, arguably, has little to lose. His hardcore support is already baked in and Americans are by now almost incapable of feeling shocked by his convention-wrecking style.

He also goes to Cleveland with what he hopes will be his own silver bullet - the nomination of conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

If Barrett is quickly confirmed, as the Republican-led Senate expects, Trump will have managed to tilt the highest court firmly to the right for years to come.

Democrats are crying foul over the rushed timing on the eve of an election, but Trump expects the power play to energise many conservatives.

BLUE COLLAR BOAST

The president is sure to go heavy on previous claims that Biden's son was involved in corruption in Ukraine. Last year Trump was impeached for using the power of his office to try and pressure the Ukrainian government into publicly backing that theory.

Biden, as frontrunner, wants to stay steady, but he has a reputation for losing his cool when challenged in public.

"I hope I don't get baited into a brawl with this guy, because that's the only place he's comfortable," he said.

Biden will instead aim to keep his sights trained on the coronavirus pandemic, which polls show about two thirds of Americans say Trump handled badly.

He will also shoot back at the filling of the Supreme Court seat, saying that Trump's plan is for the court to restrict abortion and reverse the Obamacare health programme - two areas that could worry swing voters.

But the most fiery moments may come when Biden himself gets personal, painting Trump as a spoiled playboy who only poses as a friend of the white working class that helped him get elected in 2016.

Biden, who spent his early childhood in the rough-edged town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, is increasingly mocking Trump's glitzy New York roots, calling it a "Scranton vs Park Avenue" election.

Trump points out that Biden only lived in Scranton as a young boy and spent most of his life in Congress. But the Times report on the president's ability to avoid almost all federal income taxes will give Biden a trove of new ammunition.

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