Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

There is little more than a week left in the campaign, and polls show Biden well ahead nationally and ahead in pretty much every swing state. Including the most important: my home state of Arizona.

Trump was much, much better this time. But he stuck with things he's been saying for months, which haven't worked. And there were a lot of lies (do voters care about this any more? I wonder.). And he didn't change the trajectory of the race. And if that's the measure of who won (which I think it is), then Biden wins.

Thanks again for joining Ed, Rana and me. I was personally Rioja-free, but it's always fun to share debate watching with two friends and colleagues.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

It has been a tale of two debates. In the first Trump drowned himself in vitriol, which caused further damage to his already heavy deficit in the polls. This time he obviously listened to his campaign advisors' advice and barely interrupted Biden. The much-touted microphone-muting rule was barely necessary - indeed I did not notice it being used. In other words, Trump did adhere to the political equivalent of the Hippocratic oath: he caused no harm to his campaign.

But I doubt that will be enough to change the dynamics of this race since Joe Biden adhered to the same oath. To be sure, Biden is often meandering and inarticulate. It's hard to believe he was sequestered for the last four days in debate prep. But he committed no obviously "senior moments", which is what Trump was aiming to induce, or provoke. Biden tonight was like Kamala Harris earlier this month in the vice-presidential debate - just good enough.

Debates only rarely affect the direction of a presidential race. I would be astonished if tonight were to qualify as that rare exception.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

I'd agree that Biden did fine — very well at certain moments when he could project his true empathy around issues like children separated at the border or racial violence. It's all that's needed for now.

What lingers for me is what Ed said about the Orwellian nature of Trump and how up becomes down and so on. I'm not Catholic, but I'm praying that this part of our political milieu goes away with the President.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

And that's it!

Well, that was a hell of a lot better than the first debate. Trump was his usually blustery self (and full of misleading statements and lies) but he was much sharper and pointed. As I said earlier, similar to his performances four years ago against Hilary Clinton.

But Biden was good and made no major mistakes. Maybe slipped up a bit on his commitment to phase out fossil fuels... which won't help him in energy-heavy states... but there was nothing there to really change the narrative, which is all that Biden had to do.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

I think Biden has missed a trick here on energy. Obama's energy policy was "all of the above", and he should get a lot of credit for the US's energy independence... which Trump is now taking credit for. Not sure why Biden let that one go. But he's pretty good here on minorities who live on the "fenceline".

Edward Luce, US National Editor

Perhaps an esoteric point, but when Trump attacks Biden's climate change plan as "AOC plus three" he's betraying his addiction to Fox, OANN, Breitbart etc...

Most Americans don't know what AOC stands for (Alexandria Ocasio Cortez). To the most ardent parts of Trump's base, AOC and others are part of an elaborate demonology. But he's only preaching to the converted.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Both Biden and Trump talk a lot about their environmental plans and records, but I just don't think this moves any voters. If you believe that climate change is an existential threat, you're going to vote for Biden. If you don't, you're going to vote for Trump.

It's clear the Trump campaign thinks tagging Biden with the Green New Deal and AOC does damage, but he's tried this before and it gets no traction. People just don't think Biden is a young socialist.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Does Donald Trump really think he can convince voters that he did more for African-Americans than the first African-American president in the history of the US?

Yes, I noticed that Biden checked his watch. That is exactly what got George HW Bush in trouble in his debate with Bill Clinton. Made him look like he wanted to get out of there. Not sure Biden's glance had the same effect, though. Looked like he was just checking to see how much time left.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

This bit on Abraham Lincoln is silly, but it gets to a point I've always noticed about Trump: He really doesn't have a sense of humour. I don't think voters like that about him. They tend to like presidents who can have a bit of a laugh, with Reagan and FDR being the best examples. Biden has a bit of an old fogey sense of humour, but it gets me laughing every once in a while.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

That's a good point, Ed. I'd forgotten about it. It's worth repeating how essential the African-American vote was to Biden winning the Democratic nomination. It was the endorsement of a key African-American legislator that helped him win in South Carolina, and it was the African-American vote that won him Super Tuesday.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

Powerful point that Biden is making right now about how Black parents have to teach their sons in particular to act in a certain way to avoid being the target of potential suspicion or violence.

I once had an African American friend who taught her son to play without waving his hands too much because she was worried he'd attract too much attention (read: alarm) otherwise. You get the sense that Biden actually gets this sort of thing.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

We're about halfway through and I've got to say we're seeing the Trump who was pretty effective in his debates against Hillary Clinton four years ago. If he had come out like this in the first debate, this might be a far closer race. With less than two weeks to go, it's probably too little, too late. Also, Biden is holding his own. He's not as effective as Trump, I don't think, but he doesn't have to be. He's ahead by 10 points, so he just has to have a draw.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

Trump is outdoing his instinct to project. Accusing Biden of taking millions in foreign money. Biden's net worth was around $500,000 when he left the vice-presidency — Obama even offered him a loan so that he could avoid remortgaging. Since then he's earned around $15m from speaking and book royalties. Trump on the other hand owes $421m to undisclosed creditors.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

Hmm. OK, yes, Ed, I'd agree with that. Also, his point about the plexiglass restaurants is true — this is the one rare moment when he's talking about something he knows, which is the details of something like the finishes in a restaurant. One source in Atlantic City told me he used to insist on having his name on everything in hotels — from toilets to carpets — so that it would be easier to cut good brand deals when the operations went under since it was so expensive for new buyers to replace everything.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

So Trump appears to have learned his lesson from the first debate. No interrupting, straight-forward answers, no more than the usual Trump hyperbole.

That may make fewer voters dislike him. But it's not going to change the narrative with less than two weeks left before Election Day. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

OK, I feel safe — the opposite of 2016. I was SO worried back then, especially on the first debate which I thought Trump clearly won even though nobody else thought so. I've only had one beer I'm feeling so confident!

Here's a deep question — if Trump were trying to lose this election, would he behave any differently than he has so far? Discuss amongst yourselves...

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

The pre-debate Twitterverse is awash with Hunter Biden stories, including the fact that the Trump campaign brought along a former Hunter business partner to the debate tonight. As I wrote below, I still don't understand why the Trump team think this is a winner.

Scandals about brothers and sons don't matter. Neil Bush was accused of things pretty similar to Hunter Biden. Didn't hurt father George or brother George in their presidential campaigns.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

True enough Peter. But even if we didn't have Trump as a lightning rod to help people decide, do we really think that Biden wouldn't be playing WAY better in Midwest swing states? I continue to believe that two things killed Hillary -- Trump's attack on the Clinton neoliberal trade policies in the first debate, and her "deplorables" comment in September 2016. It was over for her after that. Biden, on the other hand, is a guy from Scranton...

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Rana, I actually think the key difference between 2016 and today is the diminishing number of "undecideds" in polling.

We've been living in a hyper-politicised country for four years... heck, even watching the NFL has become politcised! There just aren't many undecided voters left to win over for Trump. There were lots going into Election Day four years ago.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

It's amazing to me what a different landscape we are in for Biden today versus Clinton in 2016. Honesty rating for Clinton was 37 per cent; for Biden over 50 per cent.

Biden is doing better with working class whites, he's up in Ohio, while Clinton was trailing. I don't want to count chickens but it's hard for me to see how this is anything but a Biden victory...

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

I think Ed's point about the mute button on the microphones could be key. Biden has been solid if not spectacular in debates dating back to the primary campaign. But those of us who have followed Biden's political career for years know he's prone to verbal blunders.

If Trump had any strategy in the first debate (and aides maintain he was freelancing) it appeared to be an effort to knock Biden off-kilter and force the former vice-president into a confused gaffe. Indeed, there were a couple of points where Biden appeared to be stumbling...only to be saved by Trump himself, who couldn't help himself from talking over the struggling Democrat.

Could a Biden with uninterrupted time be more prone to a malapropism? That's the risk.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

On national TV, we're watching images of a socially-distanced debate stage in Nashville that is now absent the plexiglass dividers that featured in the vice-presidential debate a couple of weeks ago.

Earlier in the evening, two man-sized dividers stood between the candidates' podiums, but according to campaign aides, they were removed after both Trump and Biden tested negative in coronavirus tests.

The neutral arbiter who reviewed the tests? Antony Fauci, the infectious disease expert on the White House coronavirus task force — and the man who Trump has spent much of the week bashing.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

I had a dream the other night that Lincoln was debating Douglas and they looked like Biden and Trump.

Actually, I didn’t dream that, but the contrast is worth emphasising. Those legendary series of debates took place in 1858 on the eve of the civil war before Lincoln ran for the presidency. When people talk about progress, they are usually referring to improvements in living conditions: we live longer, are better educated, and employ people rather than own slaves etc.

If you were to measure American change by the quality of public debate, however, I doubt we would use the word “progress”. The first Biden-Trump debate last month was to Lincoln-Douglas what Heinz baked beans is to foie gras. Would it be too much to hope for less hooliganism and more substance tonight? Around the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, John Stuart Mill wrote that he would rather be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. I don’t believe anyone, even the hardiest Trump supporter, could have been satisfied with what happened in the first debate. Is it possible that at some level this takeaway has penetrated Trump’s consciousness?

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

Apparently some Republican believers are feeling Catholic guilt, or at least a version of it. I was struck by the fact that the granddaughter of the Rev. Billy Graham, an anti-abortion evangelical Christian, is voting for Biden because she believes Trump is trying to “hijack our faith for votes.”

This reminds me of the very smart Democratic campaign signs I have seen in the biggest swing state, Pennsylvania, that have pictures of older white men and younger white women with slogans like “I’m Republican, I’m a business owner, I’m for Biden,” or “I’m a mom, I’m a Christian, I’m for Biden.” This just deprives the President of oxygen, which is all too appropriate in the midst of Covid.

Biden doesn’t have to advertise his empathy or faith, which are obvious, but he should definitely talk up the caring economy tonight, and the importance of giving parents and families support through the pandemic and what will likely be a deep winter recession. It connects the dots between faith, care, health, and jobs.

Edward Luce, US National Editor

I am still struggling to understand why the Trump campaign is so opposed to having his microphone muted. In a letter to the presidential debate commission, Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, said, “it is completely unacceptable for anyone to wield that editorial control”. Stepien would have been better off sending the commission a case of champagne.

Aside from turning his own Covid infection into a personal drama, little has done Trump as much self-inflicted damage as his conduct during the first debate. He was hectoring, rude, loud, obnoxious and deeply personal. The encounter turned into a big win for Biden.

As a result of Trump’s de facto sabotage of the first debate, candidates' mics will now be turned off when the other is giving their opening two-minute statement on each new topic (of which there will be six in total).

That means Biden will have at least 12 uninterrupted minutes to tie himself up in verbal knots — precisely what the Trump campaign should want to happen. As I wrote in my review today of Evan Osnos’s excellent short book on Biden, the Democratic nominee has profited late in his career from learning the value of silence.

“The more he [Trump] talks, the better off I am,” said Biden. The same, of course, is true in reverse.

Demetri Sevastopulo, Washington Bureau Chief

Shortly before the debate, the Biden campaign denied that the former vice-president had ever been involved in business with any of his family members. The denial was in response to repeated claims by Mr Trump — who has provided no evidence — that Mr Biden has profited from his son Hunter’s business dealings in China.

“Joe Biden has never even considered being involved in business with his family, nor in any overseas business whatsoever,” the campaign said in a statement.

In an effort to propel the attack, the Trump campaign brought Tony Bobulinski, a former business associate of Hunter Biden, to meet reporters before the debate.

"I've heard Joe Biden say he never discussed business with Hunter. That is false," Mr Bobulinski (pictured below) told reporters.

The Biden campaign said that while Mr Biden had never engaged in any such business, “Tony Bobulinski admitted on the record to Breitbart that he is angry he was not able to go into business with Hunter and James Biden”.

The Biden campaign also referred to a recent story in the New York Times which revealed that Mr Trump had a bank account in China.

“Donald Trump has a secret Chinese bank account and pays more in taxes in China than he pays in federal incomes taxes in the United States... this is a desperate, pathetic farce executed by a flailing campaign with no rationale for putting our country through another four years of hell.”

When pressed on whether he had any evidence to back up his claims, Mr Bobulinski said the information was contained on three phones that he was carrying with him. But he declined to provide any specifics, saying only that he would discuss the evidence with Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican senator who has promoted conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden.

Joe Biden on Wednesday accused the senator of running a “smear” campaign.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

It's also the economy, stupid: Aside from the President’s mishandling of Covid, this is what Biden should drive home tonight. Just as the Midwest and Florida are feeling the health crisis of a second coronavirus wave, they’ll also be at the centre of the coming tsunami of small business shutdowns, thanks to the President’s refusal to push through more fiscal stimulus.

FT readers will know that I am the rare Democrat that frets about debt. I’m from Indiana, what can I say? But as I wrote in my column last Monday, there’s no question that we need more to get through the winter.

Longer term, I am a fan of Biden’s focus on investment into green tech and the caring economy, which could set the stage for what venture capitalist Bill Janeway calls a “productive bubble,” in which government seeds a high growth area and the private sector then moves in.

It’s the opposite of what we got during the Trump tenure, which as economist Alan Blinder summed up well was basically a job creation myth fueled by tax cuts and debt.

Which reminds me of Ed’s smart Swamp Note from last week: Why is it that Republicans are so much better at cutting taxes than debt?

Edward Luce, US National Editor

A couple of weeks before the 2008 presidential election, millions of people received a viral email purportedly from Barack Obama; “Everyone just chill the f*** out. I got this,” it said. I mention this to remind readers that there is nothing new about liberal paranoia. Democratic voters were suffering from election insomnia way before 2016. But this time it seems to be considerably worse. Partly this is post-traumatic stress syndrome from Trump’s shock defeat of Hillary Clinton. Since that outcome went against the overwhelming betting market and opinion poll consensus, why shouldn’t it happen again? In other words, people don’t trust the polls.

Another reason, of course, is that so much more is at stake — a second Trump term is orders of magnitude worse in liberal (and many non-liberal) eyes than the prospect of a John McCain, Mitt Romney, or even George W. Bush presidency. But the biggest fear tonight is that Biden will flub his lines. Watching Biden debate is a bit like being in the audience when your child is acting in a school play. “Please don’t screw it up,” you whisper under your breath.

If there is room left in this October for a surprise, the likeliest one is a Biden moment that enables Trump to revive his “Sleepy Joe is not all there” narrative. Most Americans like and trust Biden according to the polls. About the only thing that could override that is the fear that he is not fully in command of his faculties. Just to be clear: I think Biden is entirely compos mentis. To suggest otherwise is fake news. But a single debate screw up can be endlessly distorted.

Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist

It’s the pandemic, stupid: that should be the headline that Biden keeps coming back to in tonight’s debate.

The rate of daily infections in the US is now at a three month high. Hospitalisations are hitting a two month high. The Midwest, including some of the swing states, are a new hot spot (I’m worried about my parents in Indiana and my daughter who is at school in Chicago, not to mention my brother in South Dakota, which is one of the biggest Western hotspots).

Even in New York, where I have to say that Cuomo has done a stellar job managing the virus, new cases are rising. I personally have two close friends that just tested positive (I did the rapid response yesterday and am negative, thankfully). Winter Is Coming, and many people are feeling a sense of dread about getting through the second wave.

The President is of course at the heart of that existential angst. As one of my favorite analysts Dave Rosenberg wrote in his “Early Morning with Dave” newsletter this morning:

If Covid-19 wasn’t bad enough, a recent study published by the American Psychological Association found that 68% of American adults stated that the 2020 election generated a ‘significant source of stress’ in their lives. But here’s what is unusual —that number is 76% for Democrats and 67% for Republicans. For the Democrats, the memory of 2016 is fully intact and many believe that Mr. Trump will pull another rabbit out of the hat.

Personally, I don’t think he will, because his mishandling of the pandemic has been so epic and the pain is front and center in swing states right now.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Can a second presidential debate really alter the course of an election? If history is any guide, it’s usually the first debate that gets the biggest audience and sets the tone, which would be bad news for Donald Trump, whose first debate performance may go down as one of the most fatal in presidential history.

John Kennedy was able to look young and vigorous in the first-ever debate in 1960, and Richard Nixon never really caught up. Al Gore rolled his eyes and sighed melodramatically in his first debate with George W Bush in 2000, an image of arrogance and pompousness that he never shed. Gerald Ford claimed there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” in his first 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter, a gaffe that would help doom his re-election chances.

But there are examples where a candidate was able to turn things around later on in the debate series. The most significant — and perhaps most relevant to tonight’s duel — was Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984. In the first debate against former vice-president Walter Mondale, Reagan stumbled over budget details and other policy minutiae, leading to questions about whether the incumbent’s age, then 74, was catching up with him.

Those close to Reagan, including his wife Nancy, accused campaign staff of overwhelming the president with facts to remember. Paul Laxalt, a Nevada senator and longtime Reagan confidant, famously said that in the second debate, they would “let Reagan be Reagan”. The result was one of the most famous zingers in presidential debate history. When asked about his age, the incumbent quipped: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.”

The line had even more impact because a camera at stage right cut to a two-shot that showed Mondale laughing uproariously at the joke. And it was a joke: Mondale was 56 at the time, and had not only spent four years as vice-president, but had two terms as Minnesota senator under his belt — and had worked in national politics, including as an aide to fellow Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey, since the 1940s.

Reagan’s age ceased being a campaign issue and he went on to win 49 states in November, losing only Mondale’s home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Trump has never been particularly Reaganesque. But he may need the Gipper’s deft touch to turn things around tonight.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Donald Trump's "closing argument" has thus far been hard to discern. Headlines have been dominated by Trump’s new line of attack against Anthony Fauci, which would seem to play right into Biden’s closing argument that Trump has mishandled the pandemic.

And then there’s an apparent obsession with Hunter Biden, the Democratic candidate’s son who made the unseemly decision to sit on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was vice-president. Even if Trump’s attacks on Hunter were accurate — and there’s ample evidence they’re mostly baseless — is this really a closing argument an incumbent president should be relying on?

It may be that Trump believes he can repeat 2016, where his attacks on Hilary Clinton in the campaign’s closing days (aided by the FBI) planted seeds of doubt about Clinton’s ethics. But he’s not running against Hunter Biden, and prior scandals involving presidential family members have rarely shifted voter opinion.

Indeed, Donald Trump Jr openly admitted to soliciting Russian dirt on Clinton during the 2016 campaign with no deleterious effect on his father. Hugh Rodham, Clinton’s brother, was accused of cashing in on his family connections when his brother-in-law was president — which also had no lasting impact. Neil Bush, George HW Bush’s son, faced allegations remarkably similar to those aimed at Hunter Biden — that he used his name to get top corporate positions and attract investors while his father was vice-president — but it had no impact on the 1988 campaign. Billy Carter accepted more than $200,000 from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi while his brother was president. Again, not a game changer.

In 2016, Trump was pretty disciplined on his major themes in the weeks before Election Day: stop immigration, end capitulation to China, drain the swamp in Washington. Tonight will be key for Trump if he wants to relaunch any new closing argument with less than two weeks to go. I suspect he won’t.

Peter Spiegel, US Managing Editor

Welcome to the third and final FT US election debate “watch along” with our Swamp Notes columnists, Ed Luce in Washington and Rana Foroohar in New York, with me again serving as the orchestra conductor. We’ve received so much positive feedback from readers after our previous two outings that I’m half tempted to get Ed and Rana to do a live “watch along” with me post-election when the new season of The Mandalorian drops on Disney+, but we’ll save that for another time.

As we approach this last head-to-head matchup, you’ll be hearing a lot of political professionals talking about the candidates’ “closing argument”. This is exactly what it sounds like: consultants push their candidates to hammer on the one or two big issues they want voters to remember when they walk into the voting booth. For Joe Biden, we’ve seen remarkable message discipline around this. It’s been pandemic, pandemic, pandemic...with a bit of soak-the-rich class warfare thrown in.

But, predictably, Donald Trump hasn’t followed the traditional rhythms of campaigning, and it isn’t entirely clear what he views as his strongest “closing argument”. For a while, it looked like he was going to focus on “law and order” amid the civil unrest that erupted after the killing of George Floyd. But he isn’t hammering on that like he used to. Many in his inner circle have pushed him to talk more about the economy, and this morning’s improving jobless numbers could help there. But again, although he has attacked Biden’s tax plans, there hasn’t been a consistent, repeatable message.