Everybody showed up for a brawl Thursday night and a debate broke out.
The main takeaway from the final head-to-head matchup of the White House race was that the President of the United States did not metaphorically set himself on fire -- a marker of how grading on a curve has often been needed over the last extreme four years.
But in his final chance to change the dynamic of his reelection race against Democratic nominee Joe Biden, even President Donald Trump appeared to have concluded that a repeat of his boorish and untamed first debate would be a disaster.
Incessant interrupting was replaced by eye rolling and making faces. When Trump got agitated, he made his characteristic accordion player gesture with his hands. As the President rattled off another falsehood, Biden stood with his eyes closed as if in silent prayer. The former vice president, however, managed to avoid his opponent's traps -- though was left to clean up an answer about transitioning away from fossil fuels that Trump's team will pound until Election Day in just 11 days.
Thanks to Trump's tempered performance and some authoritative moderating by NBC's Kristen Welker, Americans did get to hear more of the contrast between the President and his challenger on character, values and policies on immigration, climate change, racial healing, the economy and criminal justice to inform their choice in a fateful election.
Trump might have modulated his outbursts, but he didn't turn down the gusher of untruths -- especially when he denied a "dark winter" was looming. In reality, the pandemic is again raging with nearly 2,000 new deaths reported in the last two days alone in a roll of tragedy that has now seen 223,000 Americans die.
The first words out of Trump's mouth were misinformation -- he said 2 million people had been predicted to perish in the US -- but that figure was only true if the government or the citizenry made zero attempts to stop the virus.
"It will go away, and as I say, we're rounding the turn, we're rounding the corner, it's going away," Trump said, his assurances and calls for blanket state openings as fantastically out of touch with the reality of the situation as ever.
Biden seized on arrival of the feared fall surge in infections to promise to bring America back, saying, "Folks, I will take care of this. I will end this."
Looking into the camera at millions of viewers who have been stuck at home for months, he said: "Anybody that is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as President of the United States of America."
The exchange underscored that an election unfolding in the worst domestic crisis since World War II and the deepest public health emergency since World War I is far more likely to be decided by Trump's handling of the sickness and consequent economic blight of the last nine months than a debate fought to a draw when more than 40 million people have already voted.
'Is it too late? It could be'
If Trump pulls off one of the great political comebacks on November 3, his restrained showing on Thursday night might be one reason why.
But strategically, it also seems a leap to think his improved performance and Biden's more coherent effort when he wasn't talked over every two seconds will measurably change the shape of a race. The Democrat is leading in most battlegrounds and Trump is banking on a massive base turnout. But at least the President gave his campaign team something to work with after he took their counsel to tone down the antics that thrill his supporters but alienate many other voters.
"Finally," a top Republican adviser told CNN's Jeff Zeleny. "Is it too late? It could be," another adviser said, but added that the President's performance would inject optimism into the GOP ranks that had been missing for weeks.
Trump's less offensive demeanor may have convinced some wavering voters not to desert him at the last minute. His most effective attack on Biden reprised the role as an anti-Washington outsider in which he has always been most comfortable. "You had eight years to get it done. Now you're saying you're going to get it done, because you're all talk and no action, Joe," Trump said in a number of variations, pinning the two-term former vice president as a lifelong politician. His assault on Biden's Senate record on 1990s criminal justice bills seemed designed to help him on the margins with Black male voters in swing states.
But the lesson of Trump's presidency is that momentary discipline can be purged in subsequent days by raging performances and controversies that derail his own political aspirations.
It is also hard to see how Trump's callous dismissal of the more than 500 undocumented immigrant kids, separated at the border from parents whom the administration cannot find, helped the President's already sinking support among crucial suburban women voters.
"They are so well taken care of, they're in facilities that were so clean," Trump said, leaving a gaping opening for Biden, who frequently compares his own humanity to the President's callousness, to deliver a well-rehearsed line.
"Kids were ripped from their arms and separated. And now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents, and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It's criminal. It's criminal," Biden fumed.
Biden's camp can celebrate that the former vice president escaped from two highly perilous engagements with the most unpredictable debater in modern politics largely unscathed and likely enhanced. For a front-runner, that is priceless. And the President's decision to pull out of what should have been a virtual second debate after he came down with Covid-19 now feels like a big mistake.
Biden dodges Trump's trap
The President's hard line on immigration reflected the way he has always behaved in office -- as though he's running in a Republican primary. It was the same with his allegations of huge corruption against Biden and his son over alleged business dealings in Ukraine and China.
Moaning about the "laptop from Hell" and asking Biden to "clean it up and talk to the American people" might have been understandable to Fox News viewers primed on the latest conspiracy theory but probably baffled everyone else. And Trump's gambit only opened the door for Biden to hammer him over his refusal to release his tax returns and to raise questions about the President's own business conflicts.
"What are you hiding? Why are you unwilling? ... What's going on here?" Biden asked Trump.
The exchange underscored two things. First, that Biden did not fall into Trump's trap by losing his cool when his son was attacked in a way that could have distracted from his glide path to Election Day. It also emphasized how the President's attempt to saddle his foe with an email scandal in the dying days of the race is not having the same resonance as it did at the end of his duel with Hillary Clinton -- whose 40 years of combat with the conservative media machine left her reputation for honesty and trustworthiness worse off than Biden's.
The former vice president also appeared to improve upon his performance from the first debate. Most importantly for Democrats, he did not look anything like the caricature that the Trump campaign has spent months building. Biden actually could string words together and was sharp and not doddering. He largely conquered his recovering senator habit of waffling. He has had a lucky campaign in that the pandemic shielded him from scrutiny and Trump's attacks for months. But when he has needed to in marquee events, he has beaten previous expectations for his political skills -- during the Democratic National Convention, in a speech in Gettysburg and in two debates.
Biden proposed himself as the antidote to the division that the President has fostered as a tool of governing.
'Abraham Lincoln here'
Like Trump, Biden avoided the shouting and personal insults that tarnished the first debate. But he was quick to scorn the President when he had an opening, for instance when Trump -- who has constantly exacerbated racial divisions -- declared that he was the "least racist person in the room."
"Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we have had in American history," Biden replied. "He pours fuel on every single racist fire."
Biden's canned lines featured much newer material than the President, whose ubiquity means that everyone has heard it all before. But the Democrat's quips reflected the benefit of practicing for a debate even while Trump's campaign mocked him for doing so, and the President, as always, took pride in winging it.
Biden had his own collisions with fact. He, for instance, fudged the President's position on the payroll tax. He falsely denied Trump's accusations that he had in the past opposed fracking -- even though he is not currently proposing a full ban on the practice. But his comparative fealty to the truth suggests that a Biden presidency would not be built on the same mountain of misinformation as Trump's.
The President's team believes Biden gave them an opening to restore his standing in crucial Midwest battlegrounds and elsewhere when he said that he favored a transition away from a fossil fuel economy in order to fight the climate crisis.
"What he's saying is he is going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that Texas, will you remember that Pennsylvania, Oklahoma ..." Trump said, although his own musings on Democrats planning buildings with smaller windows and how "wind power kills all the birds" underscored the banality of his own climate policy.
The last words of the debate encapsulated the temperamental and political differences between the two men -- one of whom will be sworn into office for a four-year term on January 20, 2021.
Trump's appeal showed how the billionaire and former business tycoon tends to see everything through an economic prism.
"We are on the road to success. ... He will kill it. If he gets in you will have a depression the likes of which you've never seen," Trump said. "Your 401Ks will go to Hell and it'll be a very, very sad day for this country."
Biden framed the choice as fundamental to America's soul.
"What is on the ballot here is the character of this country. Decency, honor, respect, treating people with dignity, making sure that everyone has an even chance, and I'm going to make sure you get that. You haven't been getting it the last four years."