WASHINGTON (AP) — By virtue of her long political resume, Hillary Clinton will enter her highly anticipated fall debates with Donald Trump facing the same kind of heightened expectations that often saddle an incumbent president. Trump, as the political newcomer, will be more of a wild card with a lower bar to clear.
A month before the first faceoff, Clinton allies are working to prevent that dynamic from turning into an advantage for the Republican nominee.
Boosting debate expectations for her opponent requires a tricky balancing act for Clinton. At the same time she is encouraging Americans to take seriously Trump's controversial policy proposals, including a temporary ban on Muslim immigration and building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, she's painting him as unprepared and temperamentally unfit for the presidency.
"I think on the one hand it's a serious chance for Americans to tune in," Clinton said Monday on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" show. "But you've got to be prepared for, like, wacky stuff that comes at you and I am drawing on my experience in elementary school. You know, the guy who pulled your ponytail."
The presidential debates kick off Sept. 26 at New York's Hofstra University. Two additional confrontations will follow in October, along with a vice presidential faceoff between Democratic running mate Tim Kaine, a Virginia senator, and Trump's No. 2, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
Clinton's campaign has narrowed in on a candidate to play Trump in practice sessions, though aides are keeping tightlipped about the identity. One aide said it was possible more than one person would be tapped.
"She has to prepare for wild Trump, uncharacteristically mild Trump and something in between," said Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic consultant who has helped prepare presidential candidates for debates. "She's a terrific debater but you have to get her into a context that she responds to the Trump who actually shows up."
Clinton's preparations are being overseen by experienced Democratic debate experts, including Ron Klain, Karen Dunn and Robert Barnett, all of whom advised President Barack Obama during his debates. They're working out of a rented office in Washington. Top Clinton policy adviser Jake Sullivan is also playing a prominent role, along with other senior campaign officials.
For politicians with relatively little experience on the national stage, debates have often been a welcome opportunity to exceed low expectations.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, steadied his campaign by outshining Obama during their first showdown. In the 2008 vice presidential debate, Sarah Palin won praise for holding her own against then-Sen. Joe Biden, who had far more experience than the first-term Alaska governor.
Clinton advisers are specifically trying to avoid a repeat of the 2000 campaign, when Democrats spent months hammering George W. Bush as a lightweight with little grasp of important policy issues. When he looked solid in the first debate against Vice President Al Gore, party operatives realized they had made a mistake.
The Democrats had spent a year lowering expectations to the point that Bush would win the debate if he made it through and "didn't drool on himself," one Clinton aide said, commenting anonymously without authorization to speak publicly for the campaign.
Not everyone in Clinton's inner circle is worried about managing expectations for the debates.
Susie Tompkins Buell, a longtime friend of Clinton's, said the faceoff against Trump will "be like Serena Williams playing tennis with Chris Christie."
Last winter and spring, millions of people watched Trump tangle with his Republican rivals in a series of primary debates. His performances were uneven and unpredictable. The businessman sometimes dominated with his blistering criticism of opponents but other times faded into the background.
Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Obama who helped with the president's debate preparations, said Trump's unpredictability "makes him incredibly difficult to prepare for."
"Just ask Jeb Bush and Macro Rubio," he said, referencing two of Trump's vanquished GOP rivals.
The one-on-one general election debates will take place in a more staid and serious environment than voters are used to seeing Trump in. Audiences are less vocal and partisan than the crowds that often cheered Trump on in the GOP contests. And with just two candidates on stage for 90 minutes per debate, moderators have more time to dig into policy positions.
Clinton aides expect the former secretary of state to shine in the policy discussions, given her decades of experience working on domestic and foreign policy. But Trump could find his footing if he can shift the discussion toward Clinton's controversial email practices and ethics questions surrounding her family's charitable foundation.
Clinton has spent much of the campaign skirting questions about both matters. But under the bright lights of the debate stage, she won't have that option.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC and Ken Thomas at http://twitter.com/kthomasDC