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Week In Politics: Breaking Down Trump And Biden's Last Presidential Debate

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ten days until the most contentious presidential election in recent memory will be over - maybe. Of course, millions of Americans have already cast their ballots. The two candidates met this week for a debate, which, at times, actually resembled one. We're joined now by NPR's Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Debate No. 2 - maybe less to talk about because it was a bit more civil, would you say?

ELVING: A bit more, more than a little. It reminded us quite a bit of a presidential debate or what they were once supposed to be. It probably didn't change many minds. But for those still undecided, there was some substantive information to be had along with the impressions and the exaggerations and, of course, outright falsehoods. This was probably the last opportunity for either of these two candidates to address a national audience before Election Day. And we should remember, something like 50 million Americans have already voted. And that's perhaps only a third of the record total of votes we expect to see by the end of this process. Estimates are the turnout rate will be the highest in more than a century.

SIMON: And how are these two candidates going to spend these few precious days until November 3?

ELVING: You know, Joe Biden's going to be hitting the key swing states of Florida and Pennsylvania. That's where he is today. He'll be wearing his mask, holding pandemic-style events like we've seen. He also has former President Obama out there. We saw him just this last week. He was in Pennsylvania. And he's out there on the stump rallying Democrats.

Meanwhile, on the other side, the president is locked into a frenzied round of rallies in his coming days - five this weekend alone. And despite the pandemic, his often mask-less crowds can be expected to pack together to hear him. Just today, I saw a poll from Pew Research that says only 1 Trump voter in 4 thinks that the COVID is even an important voting issue.

So these events showcase the enthusiasm of Trump's strongest supporters. And he believes they show him as a winner. Here we have this 74-year-old man just recently recovered from COVID. He's out there performing, drawing on whatever sources of energy he may have, projecting his closing message, a victory over the virus. He says we've turned the corner. He says it's going away. But, Scott, 1,000 Americans died of COVID on the day of that debate. And yesterday, we had 85,000 new cases - a new single-day record.

SIMON: And, Ron, still no new relief bill for those suffering from the pandemic. Do both parties think there's some kind of political advantage they can gain in not passing something before Election Day?

ELVING: This is less about the presidential campaigns and more about Congress, where there's a mix of principle and cold-eyed election calculus at work here. Lots of Democrats want a big package of relief, and they think a skinny one is counterproductive. And they want to help cities and states that are going bankrupt right now. Generally, Republicans oppose that. But Republicans, especially in the Senate, are divided over how much to do right now. At least half the Senate Republicans think we have to stop. Let's look at the numbers. They point out that the federal budget last year just ended with a record $3 trillion - $3 trillion - in the red. That's a lot of new debt in one year. You know, when Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, he called it a major scandal that the federal debt, going all the way back to George Washington up to Ronald Reagan, was approaching $1 trillion. Well, now we have $3 trillion in new debt in just 12 months.

SIMON: Let me follow up on something you said earlier, Ron. Projections, if they're on target, show this could be the highest turnout in more than a century.

ELVING: That's right. 1908 was the highest turnout rate. And, of course, since then, the franchise has been greatly expanded. Just a century ago, we added women to the list of people who were qualified to vote in America. And then, of course, about 50 years ago, we added people 18 years old. So it's a much, much larger group of people. So when we get a turnout rate as high as it was in 1908, it's going to blow the doors off and be 150 million people.

SIMON: Well, NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much for being with us. We have a lot to look forward to, don't we?

ELVING: Yes, we do. And thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.