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Terror, civil unrest rise as presidential debate topics

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Credit: Getty Images (2)

The arrest of a suspected terrorist accused of orchestrating two bombings in New York and New Jersey. An Islamic State-inspired stabbing spree at a Minnesota shopping mall. Days of violent protests on the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina, following an officer-involved fatal shooting.

In the week leading up to Monday night’s first presidential debate at Hofstra University, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton have been confronted with a string of domestic crises that political analysts say will undoubtedly emerge as issues discussed in the 90-minute faceoff.

Responding to the latest acts of violence at the debate, which is expected to draw a record 100 million viewers, will be “the first and best opportunity” for the candidates to win over disenchanted voters with a commanding performance, said Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia-based Republican strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and Steve Forbes.

“These late-breaking issues are the types of things that make campaign consultants hold their breaths,” Dawidziack said. “You prepare as best as possible, for most other things you have canned answers . . . they probably have their talking points down solid, but these late-breaking issues have the possibility of making either candidate look bad, depending on how they respond, or how the question is asked.”

Political scientists say that it will be critical for Trump, who has billed himself as a “law and order” candidate, to provide more specifics about his plans to keep Americans safe from terrorist threats and that he must offer more details on addressing the unrest in U.S. cities amid a growing number of officer-involved shootings of black civilians.

“Trump has done well in the primary debates when there were multiple candidates. It will be interesting to see how he fares against a single opponent,” said Jeremiah Hickey, chairman of the Department of Rhetoric, Communication and Theater at St. John’s University. “He will need to put forth specifics on dealing with ISIS and Syria, especially since Clinton is so much more knowledgeable on policy.”

Meanwhile, experts say Clinton, who has touted her experience as secretary of state and New York’s U.S. senator in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, will need to work on connecting with voters who view her as impersonal or untrustworthy.

“Secretary Clinton’s primary issue is trustworthiness,” Hickey said. “For her, the concern and opportunity will be her ability to establish trust with the public. Not only does she have to talk about her accomplishments and future plans, she has to project likability.”

The debate, which will focus on the topics of national security, the country’s future and prosperity, comes as a time when polls show a wide swath of the electorate believes the nation is not headed in the right direction, and that counterterrorism must be a top priority for the next commander-in-chief.

On Long Island, 55 percent of voters said they believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, and 67 percent ranked keeping the country safe from terrorism as a crucial issue for the next president, according to a Newsday/News 12/Siena College poll released Sunday.

Corri Zoli, director of research for the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University, said that while both candidates have spoken out forcefully against the Islamic State in the wake of recent attacks, both “have been pretty weak” in detailing how they would respond to the ever-changing face of terrorism, which has gone from the al-Qaida model of planning large-scale attacks to the Islamic State approach of smaller-scale ones.

“There are all these players whose tactics are changing,” Zoli said. “What they seem to be doing . . . is not going after the big targets like airports or large iconic buildings, but going after small-scale soft targets . . . using opportunistic low-tech strategies . . . this is what is now becoming our new normal, and the candidates are going to have to address this. It’s no longer just thinking about these big, well-developed terrorist cells that takes months to plan an event.”

The recent terrorist events and the protests in Charlotte may help Trump’s debate performance because it fits into his narrative that “we’re a country in chaos,” said Richard Himelfarb, an associate professor of political science at Hofstra University.

“The narrative in this election is he’s the guy who is saying we’re on the wrong track, and we have to change; that may play to his favor to the extent he is running in an environment that people are alarmed by what they’re seeing on the news,” Himelfarb said.

Clinton will probably gain points among viewers if Trump comes across as unprepared and unsteady, Himelfarb said.

“There’s always the chance with Donald Trump that he’s going to overplay his hand, and that she will in comparison look steady compared to his impetuousness,” Himelfarb said.

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