(Image: Private Media)

What exquisite timing for The New York Times explosive revelations about Donald Trump’s taxes, landing just two days before the crucial first presidential debate with Joe Biden.

The gift of this early October Surprise will make for even more riveting viewing on Wednesday (Tuesday night US time).

But before everyone gets too excited, just recall what happened only two days before another crucial debate in the 2016, between Trump and Hillary Clinton.

The sensational Access Hollywood tapes dropped in all their pussy grabbing glory. Even senior Republicans urged Trump to quit the race before he had to front the first female presidential candidate.

And what did he do?

Two hours before taking the stage he called a surprise press conference where he trotted out four of the women who over the years had accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.

He wanted to bring them into the debate studio, although organisers put a stop to that part of the stunt.

His half-hearted apology during the debate did not diminish the tension but even though Hillary Clinton won the night convincingly, history tells us what happened in November.

This week’s debate will be great theatre, but the bigger question is whether Biden is capable of delivering the killer punch.

My coverage of Biden goes back to his 1988 presidential bid when I was the US correspondent for The Australian.

He was then one of the more youthful candidates, but a long way behind the charismatic frontrunner Gary Hart. Of course, it was that charisma which led Hart to crash out of the race over allegations of an affair with glamorous model Donna Rice.

Emboldened by the Hart scandal, it took the media only a few months to claim Biden’s scalp over a far less scintillating story that he plagarised part of a speech by then UK Labour leader Neil Kinnock.

Like Hart, Biden initially tried to ride out the scandal but each day came more damaging allegations and then even more damning claims that he had lied about his academic record.

It took only 11 days for him to bow out of the race after the first plagarism story and another 20 years until he ran for president again.

I was a Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University during the 2008 election campaign, studying the bitter battle for the Democratic nomination. In 2007 Biden participated in 11 of the 13 debates which tested the patience of candidates and viewers alike.

Dubbed Snow White and the seven dwarfs, the campaign was dominated by the front-runner Hillary Clinton until Barack Obama inspired the base with his hope and change theme.

While Biden didn’t make any major gaffes during the debates, he once again failed to inspire, and was swiftly eliminated after the first caucus in Iowa in January when he came in fifth — although he clearly impressed Obama, who later made him his running mate.

It was as vice president in 2012 that Biden delivered his best ever debate performance, against Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan. It’s that Biden that pundits hope will emerge on Tuesday.

His debate performances last year during the Democratic primaries were largely underwhelming, with only the occasional glimpse of the feisty 2012 version.

His incredible comeback in South Carolina was more a factor of him being the most electable of the candidates. Since then he has failed to ignite the base and was a rare beneficiary of the pandemic, where his absence from the campaign trail kept the spotlight on Trump.

Given the lacklustre but worthy advertisements coming out of his campaign, one wonders whether Biden still hasn’t learnt that Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” might not work against Trump.

In fact the toughest opponents of Trump appear to be the ex-Republicans behind the Lincoln Project, which is running a vicious ad campaign against the incumbent president.

Unlike his opponent, Biden is prepared for this week’s debate. But against Trump, will that be enough?

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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