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Story highlights

Trump and Clinton have great strengths and weaknesses in debating, Todd Graham says

Editor’s Note: Todd Graham is the director of debate at Southern Illinois University. His teams have won five national championships and advanced to the “final-four” of a national championship tournament nine consecutive years. He’s been recognized three times as the national debate coach of the year The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN) —  

These presidential debates, which start Monday, will be like no others. The primary debates had more viewers than any in history, and featured trash talking, loud audience booing, candidates mocking each other, shouting matches, and body parts bragging. And those were just the Republicans.

Todd Graham
PHOTO: Courtesy Todd Graham
Todd Graham

The Donald Trump/Hillary Clinton debates will be the Olympics of debate. Heck, if we’re lucky, Leslie Jones can live-tweet these, too. (Slay all day Leslie!)

Let’s preview the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate.

Trump’s strengths

• Manipulating the moderators. Trump’s been pretty outspoken about the possibility of unfair moderators. Why? Because debate moderators can be played, just like sports officials. Whenever my debate teams think we have judges predisposed against us, we subtly ask about their “philosophy” of judging and aim to find out how we can overcome their bias. In almost all circumstances, at the end of the debate, the judges vote for us because of overcorrection. They want so badly to appear fair that they end up being unfair to the other team.

Grading the debate

  • Check back with CNN Opinion during and after each presidential debate for analysis and commentary.

Critic of status quo. Syria, Iraq, Libya, trade with China – you name it and Trump will criticize it. He’s a first-rate armchair quarterback.

• Fear mongering. This actually works for a lot of people. Everything is “terrible” and “horrible,” Trump says. Actually, theories of persuasion have been tested, and “fear of losing” something you already have is much more persuasive than appeals to gain something new you don’t currently possess.

• Personality. Trump can be both funny and charming. Hey, the Rubio water bottle bit still cracks me up.

• Handling hostility. He’s used to it. When the crowd booed him in the previous debates, he brushed aside the boo-birds like he was sweeping pigeons off the terrace of his penthouse.

Evading questions. Trump has several tactics for this. He provides general answers, ignores the question completely or turns it into an attack on his opponent by accusing them of the same thing. (It’s the Pee-wee Herman response, “I know you are but what am I?”) Finally, whenever pressed on some ridiculous claim, Trump uses his get-out-of-jail-free card is to respond with, “A lot of people say,” and “I’ve heard many people.” He simply brushes the question off like he would lint on his cashmere and then blames it on faceless “other people.”

Trump’s weaknesses

Policy knowledge. This could be his undoing. Just read the latest challenge from Mark Cuban as proof that nobody thinks Trump understands policy. Cuban will give him $10 million if Trump will let Cuban grill him on policy positions for four hours. Ten. Million. Dollars.

• Punishing format. Two candidates on stage and 90 minutes to fill. Saying “We don’t win anymore” and “I’ll make better deals” repeatedly should get tiresome pretty quickly in this format.

• Thin skin. Trump doesn’t like criticism of any kind. And he has a childish way of dealing with it by name-calling. If he loses his temper in the debate, as he has in the past, it will appear much worse when it’s just the two of them up there.

Flip-flops and lies. Let’s be real. Trump lies in debates more than anyone … ever. You can look this up on any fact-checking website. My favorite: Sixty percent of claims that PolitiFact has checked have been rated false or pants-on-fire (outright lies) and under 3% of his claims have been rated as true!

• Hubris. Trump honestly thinks he’s won all the debates so far. I’m not making this up. This is a weakness if it has led him to conclude he doesn’t need to do the kind of substantial preparation most candidates do.

Clinton’s strengths

Knowledge. Clinton simply knows her stuff about the economy, civil rights, Russian relations, the war on terror and other issues. You may not agree with her, but you won’t think she’s under-informed.

• Future policy. This is where she can set herself apart from Trump. She can speak articulately about the direction we should take, as a country, in the future. Trump’s forte is criticizing the past. Clinton’s is pointing toward the future.

• Ability to draw sharp contrasts. Clinton has been solid, even in the primary debates, at delineating the differences between her proposals and his.

Attitude. I know people think she’s too robotic and stiff, and that’s a weakness. However, in several debates, Clinton’s approach has been more relaxed, calm, and she even seems to enjoy the debates with a conversational quality.

Clinton’s weaknesses

• Her personality. In these debates, people want to see a “real” person. That means personality and feelings. Joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness were all part of Riley’s emotions in “Inside Out,” the Pixar movie. Well heck, if a cartoon character has emotions, why can’t Clinton?

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• Long-winded. She never finishes her answer on time, and she runs over the dinging timer, runs through the buzzer in the background, runs past the moderator’s attempts to start up again, and I think she even ran over my neighbor’s dog while she was at it. These long-winded answers, as if to grandmother’s house we go, serve her poorly. You can’t get to the “big finish” of your answer if you’re being talked over and sirens are blaring. She needs to get to the point sooner.

• Evasive answers. Do you remember when she said Wall Street gave her contributions because of 9/11? Or in the next debate, same question, Clinton said that she got less money from Wall Street than from teachers. These didn’t pass the smell test. She’s got to do better.