A RACIST, a liar, and a clown. Just some of the names Joe Biden called his opponent Donald Trump during the first presidential debate. To think the former Vice-President was meant to be the good guy, the candidate who would turn down the heat and let in the light.

Any insane hope that the 2020 race for the White House might suddenly turn into an episode of The West Wing vanished within minutes of the candidates taking the stage in Cleveland, Ohio, on Tuesday night, 9pm EST, 2am GMT (Glasgow Mean Time).

This was more like an especially niche bout at Wrestlemania – at which Mr Trump once appeared, naturally – this one featuring two rich old white guys going at it hammer and tongs.

Make that three old white guys if you count the moderator, Chris Wallace. The Fox News host had a bad night, trying and failing to stop wave after wave of interruptions, most of them from Mr Trump.

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By common consensus, whether you followed the scrap live or have seen the “highlights”, this was a terrible evening in general for televised debates.

The format had already been called into question during the last UK elections, and it is difficult to see it surviving if the next two American bouts (plus the Vice-Presidential clash next Wednesday) are anything like this week’s disaster. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which runs the events, had clearly failed to anticipate what might happen if one candidate, in this case Mr Trump, was determined to cause havoc.

Why anyone should have been surprised at his aggressive tactics is a surprise in itself. In the 2016 debates against Hillary Clinton he showed himself a bully and a bruiser, at one point following her around the stage. At least the podiums spared us that sight on Tuesday. Every day of Mr Trump’s presidency has been a lesson in his determination to tear up convention. He is the disrupter-in-chief. He was never going to suddenly play nice, particularly when he was down in the polls.

Even by his low standards, this was a poor performance by the President. He was certainly sharper than his opponent initially, but when he went into a rant he stayed there. The attempts to bait Mr Biden over his son, Hunter, were only too transparent.

As for Mr Biden, the bar of expectation was set low. He stumbled over some figures, did not fizz with as much energy as his opponent, and every now and then allowed himself to be rattled (“Will you shut up, man?”). But when he found the right soundbite, and the right camera, he began looking the part of President. As well he might, given this is his third attempt to land the job.

He could have done better on Mr Trump’s tax affairs. Paying $750 a year in federal income tax after he became President? That’s a Leona Helmsley, only the little people pay taxes, kind of own goal. More than $400 million in debt, massive losses, including from his two golf courses in Scotland. Would you buy a used company from this guy?

It is hard to imagine any voter shifting their position after Tuesday’s debate. Such tussles are more likely to confirm choices rather than change minds.

READ MORE: Highlights from the Cleveland debate

But as has so often been the way lately, it is the Americans in the middle, the one in 10 undecideds, who are all to play for. Among this group are women, and suburban women in particular. They did not turn out in large enough numbers where it mattered for Hillary Clinton, but polling suggests they might do so for Mr Biden.

Unless, that is, they were just as unimpressed by his performance in the debate as Mr Trump’s. As the BBC anchor Katty Kay put it in one of the wittier comments on the night, the Cleveland set-to sounded like “being yelled at by all the men you’ve ever had an argument with”.

With five weeks to election day the polls are tumbling out of the political and media machines at an ever faster rate. One of the more notable to emerge this week was a data crunch done for YouGov which looked at how the poll numbers would translate into the all important electoral college votes, rather than the popular vote (which Hillary Clinton won, remember). This had Mr Biden on 350 electoral college votes – 270 being the winning post – and his opponent on 188.

It would be a fool who thought it was in the bag for Mr Biden this far out from election day. Given the crises piling up around Mr Trump, from the obscenely high and still growing death toll from Covid-19, to economic collapse and protests on the street, it is something of a wonder that he is doing as well as he is. The man is a fighter, even if his daddy bought him his first pair of gloves.

Here we come to the most chilling aspect of the first presidential debate. That it was an unedifying shouting match was nothing to tweet about. The shocking part was the way the President so boldly signalled the possible mayhem to come should he lose and refuse to accept the result.

He has been murmuring about mail-in votes for some time, despite there being no proof of the fraud he alleges. The fact 31 million people successfully voted this way in 2018 – a pretty big sample – should have soothed doubts, but not The Donald’s. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” he said.

Both sides are now accepting that there will be a delay in announcing the results of the November 3 election due to the pandemic and postal voting. Asked to tell his supporters to remain calm and wait for independent verification of the result, Mr Trump said: “I’m encouraging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully.” Given the opportunity to condemn white supremacists, he dodged the question.

All of this raises the prospect of even more turmoil in a divided nation already reeling from the pandemic and other crises coming to the boil. This was astonishingly irresponsible behaviour by the President. His actions and attitude sum up the man and his presidency, and show how close to the edge America is venturing.

We can only hope softer voices will prevail, but what chance of that now? God help America.

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