Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to and meets Pennsylvania voters at Temple University in Philadelphia on Sept. 19, 2016.
The Washington Post/Getty Images
By Frank Luntz
September 22, 2016
IDEAS
Luntz is a pollster and communication advisor.  He is conducting focus groups for HBO and Vice News ahead of the 2018 elections. 

Secretary Clinton:

You’ve prepared for this moment for your entire life. Your decades of experience, your knowledge of the issues, and your ability to hit the ground running on Day One make you eminently more qualified and capable than The Donald. He’s going to try to beat you on spectacle. You need to beat him on substance.

Read more: How Donald Trump Can Defeat Hillary Clinton in the First Debate

Your tone should be confident and prosecutorial, and your case is to prove that Trump is unfit for public office. But please don’t say it. Prove it. Your mission is to demonstrate that every time he talks on the global stage, his words could defile the office, embarrass the country and, yes, even provoke a war. Our polling couldn’t be clearer: If the election is a referendum on Trump, you win.

Remember this as he tries again and again to get under your skin: Trump is the most disliked candidate in modern history. Put him on trial. Rattle him. When he is challenged, he hits back. He loses control. He says dumb stuff. So push his buttons and compel him to reveal to the world that he is not qualified for the job.

So start with the sharpest, strongest contrast you have. At the Republican convention, Trump said, “I alone can fix it.” Your approach was much more popular: better together. Compare and contrast. Tell viewers what’s wrong before you tell them how to fix it. And please make a direct appeal, by name, to Republicans and Independents:

Your opening should then re-invoke the single biggest blunder of his post-convention campaign: his attack on the Gold Star Khan family. In my focus groups, nothing turned even his core supporters off more than his unforced, unfiltered attack on a family that is still grieving the loss of their war hero son. Put him on the spot, and ask him if he is ready to apologize:

The second most damaging Trump trait is his affinity for dictators who are undoubtedly America’s adversaries. This weakness is compounded by his questionable business ties with Russia. As someone told us in a recent focus group, “He seems to like Putin a lot more than the world leaders who actually like us.” While this first debate is primarily about domestic issues, you have an unprecedented opportunity to appeal to national security voters who are alarmed by Trump’s behavior. I suggest the following language:

Next, it’s time to force Trump to have his own Aleppo moment. Gary Johnson went from outsider darling to “disqualified for office” in about 30-seconds when he revealed he didn’t know that Aleppo was a key city in the Syrian civil war. That’s all it takes to kill a candidacy. You know Trump doesn’t know the details. You know that what you’ve learned last month is more than he’s learned in a lifetime. The strategic imperative is to focus on things that matter to people. For example:

I’d take this one step further. He produced a list of judges he’d consider appointing to the Supreme Court. Ask him to name half of them. “These are your nominees. You told the world that they were the most qualified candidates for the Supreme Court. Who are they?” There’s no way he can—and that immediately undercuts his credibility and authenticity. Then bring it to a close:

The rules for these debates are going to encourage disagreement between the candidates. Assume that Trump is going to attack you early and often, and that the attacks will be more personal and insulting as you hold him accountable. I suggest using Ronald Reagan’s line from the 1980 debate. When he goes after you, just say, “As Ronald Reagan used to say, ‘there you go again.’” Then add: “Why do you feel the need to insult people just because they disagree with you? Is this how you will behave in the White House? Is this how you will talk to world leaders?” Make his temperament an issue.

But prosecuting Trump and holding him accountable is not enough. You won’t want to hear this, but even now, too many voters are not sure what you stand for or what you will fight for. On your website you talk about “an economy that works for everyone.” That’s not enough. You have to explain it in personal terms:

Finally, Trump’s single greatest electoral weakness remains women. Nothing will differentiate you more effectively among women of all ages and all political allegiances than reminding viewers of what Trump as said and who he has said it to:

Secretary Clinton, these debates are your opportunity to put your attorney skills back on display for the American people. Your objective should be to put Donald Trump, and everything he has stood for, on trial. Just remember that your client is the American people.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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