THE MORNING PLUM:

There is a conventional wisdom hardening which holds that Hillary Clinton’s most urgent task at the first debate is to bait Donald Trump into acting like the ignorant, dangerous, hateful, bigoted, temperamentally unhinged character he has periodically displayed to the nation for the last year. The corollary to this is that if Trump acts relatively controlled and projects minimal seriousness, he might “defy expectations” and emerge the winner.

I don’t buy it. While this is certainly a factor worth considering, I’m going to suggest that Clinton can win this debate — in the minds of voters, if not in the minds of pundits — even if Trump does pull off that magic transformation for ninety minutes on Monday night.

No question, Team Clinton probably would like to see Trump come unglued before an audience that could be as large as 100 million people. The New York Times reports that Team Clinton is trying to determine “how to knock Mr. Trump off balance,” in the belief that “she needs the huge television audience to see him as temperamentally unfit for the presidency, and that she has the power to unhinge him.”

And no question, Team Trump believes that avoiding that outcome is key to his hopes of prevailing. The Associated Press reports that Trump’s advisers are counseling him to avoid letting Clinton rile him up, noting, remarkably, that “some Trump aides are more concerned about Trump’s disposition on the debate stage than his command of the issues.”

But Clinton does not necessarily have to bait Trump into acting angry, hateful, or crazy to prevail. Clinton can win if she displays more knowledge and competence than Trump, and if she shows that she takes the debates more seriously than Trump does — while simultaneously taking steps herself to remind the audience of Trump’s erratic judgment and temperament and track record of bigotry, hate speech and all-around abusiveness.

How long are the presidential debates going to be? Who chooses the moderators and the dates? Here is what you need to know. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Indeed, this is likely the real game plan. As I reported yesterday, Clinton is preparing to face one of two Trumps: Unhinged Trump, or Serious, Sedate Trump. When I asked a top Clinton adviser if she will try to bait the former to make an appearance, he declined to answer, but said she would be prepared to face either. It’s obvious that Clinton is prepping a strategy that will hopefully be effective against either Trump. Job One for Clinton is to project as much steadiness, sobriety of purpose, and mastery of complex issues as possible, on the theory that voters will reward the candidate who actually takes the debates seriously as a proving ground for the excruciating pressures and brutally tough choices required of a president. Meanwhile, whichever Trump makes an appearance, Clinton will almost certainly take steps herself to remind the massive, engaged debate audience of Trump’s birtherism, his bigotry, his chauvinism, his cruelty, his overly bellicose temperament, his xenophobic nationalism, his proposals for mass deportations and a ban on Muslims, etc.

In a sense, the idea that Clinton “needs” to “bait” Unhinged Trump into making an appearance is its own form of artificial expectations gaming. If Trump avoids this “trap,” that then allows commentators to claim that he “defied expectations” and was surprisingly sober, serious, and perhaps even presidential. But these “expectations” are arbitrary, and they are set by the commentators themselves. Trump should not be accorded credit for being less ignorant, unhinged, hateful, and dishonest than usual.

Indeed, allow me to suggest one possible way all this might go. Serious, Sedate Trump appears on Monday night, and manages to remain present throughout. Commentators gush about how he “defied expectations.” Meanwhile, Clinton gets a message out to the voters that she is nonetheless far more prepared for the presidency than Trump is, while simultaneously reminding them herself in some detail about the Unhinged Trump they already know so well. Commentators don’t register that happening, or at least give it short shrift amid their zeal to declare that Trump cleared the bar that they themselves set at floor-level for him. But the voters do register it.

I’m not necessarily predicting a uniformly winning performance from Clinton. She’ll struggle under tough questioning about her emails, the Clinton Foundation, and so forth. No doubt many Dems are also hoping Clinton takes major steps to make herself more likeable, and it’s anyone’s guess whether she’ll succeed at that. I’m simply suggesting that, whatever the commentariat concludes about the outcome, the public’s ultimate verdict on it will not hinge on whether Trump manages to “defy expectations” by avoiding efforts to bait him into being unhinged, or by meeting an arbitrary pundit-generated minimal standard of knowledge and seriousness.

****************************************************************

* CLINTON TEAM ROLLS OUT BRUTAL NEW AD: This ad is running in multiple swing states:

Hillary Clinton’s campaign released this ad Sept. 2, targeting Donald Trump’s past comments about women. (Hillary Clinton)

Clinton will try to remind the debate audience about all of these Trumpian statements, whichever Trump shows up.

* CLINTON LEADS IN ANOTHER NATIONAL POLL: A new McClatchy-Marist poll finds Clinton leading Trump by 48-41 among likely voters nationally, and by 45-39 in the four-way match-up:

She is winning because voters trust her more than Trump to handle immigration, fight terrorism and manage the nation’s economy, and think she has the experience to do the job. The weakness she’s been unable to shake is the public’s view of her honesty and trustworthiness.

Clinton is trusted on terror by 52-41 even though this poll was partly taken amid the New York bombing and its aftermath. The national averages have Clinton up by anywhere from 2.6 points to four points.

* NATIONAL POLLS LOOK GOOD FOR CLINTON RIGHT NOW: A new Associated Press poll finds Clinton leads Trump in the four-way match-by 45-39. That’s the third national poll this week showing Clinton up six, after the above McClatchy poll and the NBC/WSJ poll released on Wednesday.

Still, the state polls are showing a far more mixed picture. Keep an eye on the averages of national and state polls.

* CLINTON LEADS IN ENOUGH STATES TO WIN, BUT… Nate Silver has an interesting look at the map that concludes Clinton now leads in enough states to win the presidency, but this isn’t as solid a position as you might think:

That both understates and overstates how precarious Clinton’s position is. Clinton’s polling has been somewhere between middling and awful in most of the other swing states lately, and they all at least lean toward Trump at the moment…. On the other hand, Clinton’s leads in the states she needs to win appear to be pretty solid. As of late Thursday afternoon, she’s ahead in our forecast by 3.1 percentage points in New Hampshire, and by slightly more than that in Colorado (3.3 points), Pennsylvania (3.4 points) and Michigan (also 3.4 points).

If Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Virginia hold, Clinton needs one more (NH, NV, FL, or NC). But that bars a surprise loss in another blue-leaning state, and the margin for error is very small.

An examination of Mr. Trump’s recommendations for policing, terrorism and immigration enforcement reveals a series of policies that civil rights activists and national security veterans fear could have the effect of treating minorities with suspicion and singling them out for heavier government scrutiny….experts in national security and law enforcement…warn that Mr. Trump’s agenda could undermine public safety by generating a backlash in communities that the police and intelligence officials rely upon for cooperation.

Why, it’s almost as if Trump isn’t actually reaching out to minority groups.

* AND MEDIA SHOULD HOLD TRUMP ACCOUNTABLE FOR DEBATE LIES: Paul Krugman spells it out:

I am not calling on the news media to take a side; I’m just calling on it to report what is actually happening, without regard for party. In fact, any reporting that doesn’t accurately reflect the huge honesty gap between the candidates amounts to misleading readers, giving them a distorted picture that favors the biggest liar….don’t grade on a curve. If Mr. Trump lies only three times as much as Mrs. Clinton, the main story should still be that he lied a lot more than she did, not that he wasn’t quite as bad as expected.

Yup. Trump should not be rewarded for meeting a minimal standard of self control — he shouldn’t be given credit for being somewhat less dishonest, unhinged, and abusive as usual.