Of Course, the Debate Was Always Going to Be About Trump

“Forty-seven years, you’ve done nothing,” Mr. Trump said.

For months, Mr. Trump has been preparing his supporters for nothing short of abject humiliation for Mr. Biden on the debate stage, all but declaring (baselessly) that his opponent is beset by dementia and plying his followers with taunts of “Sleepy Joe” and often misleadingly edited social media clips of Mr. Biden’s verbal stumbles.

Of course, such overreach does not negate the trope that Mr. Biden is indeed an inconsistent debater at times. As he tends to a national polling lead generally in the mid to high single digits five weeks before Election Day, Democrats had suggested publicly that Mr. Biden merely needed to avoid catastrophe to consider the night a success. Surveys do indicate that most voters are already firm in their electoral intentions, leading strategists in both parties to question whether a single debate would make much difference.

Still, for liberals seeking a cathartic confrontation from their nominee after four years of Mr. Trump — and, more significantly, for the subset of voters disenchanted with this White House but hardly enthused about its alternative — Mr. Biden did enter the debate hoping to close the sale.

“So unpresidential,” he said of Mr. Trump’s conduct. But often, Mr. Biden struggled to negotiate the hail of interjections — and self-inflicted asides of his own that broke up any narrative momentum.

Before the debate, Mr. Trump made clear to advisers that he would like to speak frequently about Mr. Biden’s younger son, Hunter, despite being warned that would give the former vice president an opening to discuss the president’s daughter and son-in-law working in the White House and declining to divest themselves of holdings.

In the end, Mr. Trump took the risk, ridiculing Hunter Biden’s business dealings and history with drug addiction. (An investigation into the Bidens released last week by Senate Republicans found no evidence of wrongdoing or improper influence by the Democratic nominee, though it accused the younger Mr. Biden of having “cashed in” on his father’s name in overseas business ventures.)

The biggest problem, some aides to Mr. Trump acknowledged privately, was that his faring well depended in part on his ability to make Mr. Biden lose his temper. On the broader question that has dominated the election this year — Mr. Trump’s and his administration’s failed pandemic response — there is no particularly good answer that the president can offer, some Republicans concede. So he has generally chosen not to answer it and change the subject, as he did when he could on Tuesday.