WASHINGTON - Two days before their final televised faceoff, President Donald Trump on Tuesday attacked the upcoming debate as yet another campaign event that would be "a stacked deck" against him, while Joe Biden's camp hunkered down and strategized over Trump's expected attacks on his family.
The maneuvering came as both sides prepared for the last scheduled event that could change the trajectory of the campaign and wrestled with what it would mean that the debate will feature a mute button for the first time. Biden held no public appearances for a second straight day, while Trump tried out lines of attack and in essence held his debate prep in public.
In a phone interview broadcast on "Fox & Friends," Trump lashed out at the moderator of Thursday's event, NBC's Kristen Welker, as "totally partisan" and sought to portray the debate topics and rules as unfair.
"There are people out there that can be neutral. Kristen Welker cannot be neutral," Trump said, adding that she comes from a Democratic family. An official from the Commission on Presidential Debates defended Welker, noting that a Trump official had praised her just last week, and said both campaigns had agreed to the rules. The president has complained about previous moderators as well.
The debate, set to take place in Nashville just 12 days before Election Day, is the clearest opportunity for Trump to shift the dynamic of a presidential race whose contours have remained stable despite numerous surprises. Biden leads Trump by 11 percentage points nationally, 54% to 43%, according to an average of national polls since Oct. 4.
It could also take on added significance because the previous matchups were so chaotic. The first debate was dominated by Trump's interruptions and determination to talk over Biden, and the second faceoff was canceled after Trump contracted the coronavirus, resulting in separate, dueling town halls.
At the first debate, Trump's entourage ignored rules that they had to wear masks, but organizers have signaled that they will not permit such behavior this time.
The Commission on Presidential Debates decided unanimously this week to mute each candidate's microphone during the opening two minutes of his opponent's remarks on each of the six featured topics. The debate sponsors said the change was a way to enforce rules that the campaigns had already accepted.
Commission Co-Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. said in a recent interview that the debates had to be changed "for the American people to have a better experience" after the unruly first face-off. He said Trump's team had agreed to the rules before that first debate, and he noted that the candidates could go back and forth for the remaining 11 minutes of each segment.
Fahrenkopf also said the Trump campaign's assertion that this debate was initially supposed to be about foreign policy was "entirely false."
Some Trump advisers were annoyed with the change but kept their protests to a minimum because they believed that the president's interruptions in the first debate hurt him, three advisers said.
With two weeks before the election, Biden is keeping an unusually light public schedule. In the past four days, he has traveled outside his home state of Delaware just once, to North Carolina on Sunday. On Monday, he taped an interview with "60 Minutes," which will air over the weekend, but held no public events.
Biden's surrogates have kept a robust travel schedule in his place: Sen. Kamala D. Harris, D-Calif., his running mate, campaigned in Florida on Monday, and former president Barack Obama is scheduled to hold his first public event for Biden in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
In any other presidential race, such a low-key approach would be extremely unusual at this juncture. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, however, it has become emblematic of Biden's campaign. The former vice president has blasted Trump for holding large in-person rallies, calling them "superspreader" events, and has hewed to smaller, socially distanced gatherings or drive-in car rallies while on the trail.
Trump, meanwhile, has taunted Biden for his sparser public schedule and has continued crisscrossing the country in the past week, holding rallies from Arizona to Pennsylvania as he seeks to make up ground during the final stretch.
Trump has not undertaken the same kind of formal preparation as before the first debate, when he was peppered with questions by former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and others. Instead, he has taken some informal questions from advisers such as Jared Kushner and Hope Hicks.
Trump allies including Christie and former presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway have encouraged the president to change his strategy and let his rival speak more. "My main advice is to let Biden speak. After 60 or 70 minutes, he'll be worn out," Conway said.
Trump hinted Tuesday that he may oblige. "Actually, the interesting thing, they said if you let him talk, he'll lose his train of thought," Trump said of Biden on Fox. "There were a lot of people that say let him talk because he loses his train."
Trump's advisers have made it clear they are unhappy with the selected topics for the debate, arguing that foreign policy should play a more central role and that Biden should be forced to address alleged emails from his son Hunter that were recently published in the New York Post.
The Trump team argued that foreign policy is traditionally the focus of the final presidential debate, but Fahrenkopf said that has not been true for years. National security is one of the listed debate topics, along with fighting the coronavirus, American families, race in America, climate change and leadership.
Trump wants and plans to bring up Hunter Biden during the debate, though some of his advisers would prefer that he focus on the economy and Joe Biden's record, aides said, painting the former vice president as a liberal who would raise taxes. Trump charged Tuesday that Biden would turn the United States into a "socialist hellhole."
Biden's advisers, for their part, see little to be gained by engaging publicly in the details of Hunter Biden's alleged emails and texts beyond what they have already said, according to people with knowledge of their thinking. These people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to more candidly describe strategy, said there is no reason to give credibility to a report that is sourced in part to close allies of Trump and has prompted considerable public skepticism. The Washington Post has not independently verified the contents of the report.
But ignoring the matter altogether is not an option either, they said, leaving some uncertainty about how Biden will address it Thursday night.
"I know how I would react, which would be very angry," said Sen. Robert Casey Jr., D-Pa., a Biden ally, stressing that he was not speaking for the campaign. "The whole thing is just another pack of lies in a desperate, last-minute smear campaign."
Biden did show a flash of anger when he was asked about the subject last week. "I have no response. It's another smear campaign, right up your alley," he told a CBS News correspondent who asked about the New York Post's reporting.
The tensions surrounding the issue were evident Tuesday. Biden spokesman Andrew Bates sent a preemptive warning shot at Trump, who has appeared eager to bring up Biden's son. "He invests in these tainted smears," Bates said, "because he knows his presidency is a weak, pathetic failure."
Substance aside, Biden should show that he can stand up to Trump in the debate, said former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a longtime Biden ally who has been raising money for his campaign.
"He should push back a little bit - not a lot, a little bit - so he doesn't look weak," Rendell said. "They've been peddling this thing that he's too weak to be president. . . . He's got to smack back."
Questions also remain about how the debates commission will enforce public health guidelines inside the hall this time.
Trump - as well as several people involved in preparing him for the first debate - contracted the coronavirus after that event, and the unmasked prep sessions were among the suspected sources of the virus's spread.
Trump has refused to disclose the date of his last negative test before he contracted the virus. After Trump was hospitalized with covid-19, the Commission on Presidential Debates decided that the second debate would be virtual, prompting the president to angrily withdraw.
Biden has repeatedly said he would follow whatever guidelines the commission issues.
"Look, I'm going to abide by what the CPD rules call for," Biden said during his town hall when asked whether he would demand that Trump test negative.
Biden also said he was "confident" that the Cleveland Clinic, which is overseeing the public health practices of the debates, would ensure adherence to its guidelines.
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The Washington Post's Toluse Olorunnipa, Michael Scherer and Annie Linskey contributed to this report.
BOZEMAN, Mont. - The four-bedroom contemporary just west of town smelled of fresh paint, flooring, sealant and new beginnings. The Bridger Mountains beckoned against an azure sky off the back deck, and Robert Carder, Montana's newest transplant, couldn't contain himself.
"This is your new home, Conner!" he exclaimed to his 57-pound Australian cattle dog, whose paws were slipping on the wood floor in the living room. Carder spread his arms wide. "How much bigger is this than the picture?" he asked his wife, Valentina, confirming what the couple from Los Angeles already knew.
Their living room didn't just seem bigger than the photos on Zillow that had led them to make a $559,000 offer after 24 hours in Montana, a place they had never been. The 2,300-square-foot house was twice the size of the two-bedroom condo they sold in Brentwood, Calif., before packing their cars and driving 16 hours northeast, released from the confines of the coronavirus pandemic and the jobs Robert had grown to hate and Valentina had lost.
This was the 19th walk-through their broker, Charlotte Durham, had done for out-of-state clients since Montana's virus lockdown ended in late April and its real estate market flipped into hyperdrive. Buyers fleeing New York, Los Angeles and other densely populated U.S. cities say they want to leave the coronavirus clusters and social justice unrest behind.
Even as the state's fierce winter looms, the transplants are pushing house prices to record levels. Some are offering millions of dollars in cash for houses and land they have seen only on the Internet.
"They were like, 'We're hoping we love it!' " Durham recalled on a late-summer morning as the Carders nodded in agreement.
Montana has remained a mystery to most Americans, even though it boasts some of the most magnificent scenery in the West. But as the pandemic has taken hold across the United States, what once were rural outposts here have turned into boomtowns.
These arrivals are not just tourists visiting Yellowstone National Park or looking for a wilderness vacation. This is a stampede of transplants descending in Porsche Cayennes and Teslas with cash offers. It's multimillionaires grabbing up luxury ranches to serve as second or third homes. It's buyers with more modest resources looking for a way out. It's city dwellers seeking bare land in Montana's wilderness to serve as insurance policies for America's uncertain future.
But the virus they are fleeing has been spiking here, too. Along with the neighboring Dakotas, the state has one of the worst per capita outbreaks in the country. Montana's coronavirus infections have risen precipitously in recent weeks, with a seven-day rolling average of 58 new reported cases per 100,000 residents, the third-highest rate in the United States. The total number of confirmed cases and deaths remains low - less than 24,000 cases and 241 deaths - but nearly 3,800 of those cases and 10% of the deaths were reported in the past week.
"We still have way fewer cases than most places and lots of wide open space," said Durham, 31. "It's way better here than where people are coming from."
The new infections have overwhelmed jails and health-care clinics in some communities and led to suspicions that outsiders are bringing the virus with them. But Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and health authorities said last week that out-of-state visitors account for fewer than 5% of Montana's new cases.
"This is coming from us, to us," said Sarah Stewart, a family physician at St. Vincent's hospital in Billings, which serves the city and the Eastern Montana region.
Sportsmen have long revered Montana, casting flies for the world-class trout in its rivers and hunting deer and elk on its snow-capped mountain passes. A century ago, the state's mines and forests provided jobs to immigrants from Northern Europe. In the 1990s, moviegoers glimpsed its sun-dappled rivers and towering firs in Robert Redford's adaptation of the Norman Maclean memoir "A River Runs Through It," and a generation of retirees and environmentalists put down roots to smell the sagebrush for themselves.
Silicon Valley tech workers put southwest Montana on the map a few years ago, as they sought an alternative to ever-pricier towns like Aspen and Vail in Colorado and the Jackson Hole region in Wyoming. They're taking advantage of the wide open spaces at Big Sky, a ski resort in the midst of a building boom 40 miles south of Bozeman. The transplants work remotely and commute from a growing airport with more hangars for private jets than commercial carriers.
Downtown Bozeman remade itself with craft breweries, gluten-free bakeries and high-end galleries displaying frontier art. Soon a derisive nickname followed: Bozeangeles.
The newest migrants are different. They're escaping fear, of the pandemic and of the social justice marches they believe are bringing violence to their door. Montana can bring them back in time.
The state is open for business. Interest rates are hovering below 3%. The mask police lay low. In a hyper-divided country, Montana's politics are balanced. Its demographics less so, but that is part of the appeal for many who are coming here.
"We are 98 percent Caucasian," said Candace Carr Strauss, chief executive officer of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce. "We haven't, thankfully, seen a lot of the unrest other places have seen,"
The once-sleepy Big Sky ski resort is quickly acquiring first-tier status. Its private mountain ski club for the ultrarich no longer has an offseason, what with so many members who sought refuge from the pandemic in March and never left. The mountain plans to open its slopes on Nov. 26 - with new coronavirus protocols in place.
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The property gold rush of 2020 has been dizzying. Deals move too fast for a review of comparable sales. Appraisers and title companies are being outpaced by the demand. Lenders are confronting liquidity problems. And developers can't keep up with the thirst for new homes, which are preselling as soon as floor plans come to market.
"We're running around like lunatics," said Amy Hyde, a mortgage broker in Bozeman. "People have done a month in an RV, and they're saying they want to move to Montana. The number of out-of-state cars in our town right now is insane."
Her loan volume has tripled since the spring. When she did not return a buyer's call for 20 minutes a few weeks ago, the buyer had already found another lender, she said. "People are just frantic and so stressed out."
The median price of a single-family home around Bozeman vaulted $94,000 from July to August, to $710,000, according to the Gallatin Association of Realtors, which tracks sales in the city of 52,000 and surrounding valley, the state's fastest-growing region.
Montana's less-flashy population centers, from the old railroad hub of Billings to the college town of Missoula, also are seeing buying frenzies. Even the long-depressed mining town of Butte and the isolated state capital, Helena - with a main street called Last Chance Gulch and a legislature that meets every other year - have watched prices surge 22% to 25% above pre-pandemic levels.
"There's a perception that a lot of things are going to change depending on the election outcome, and here you can protect yourself where you still have gun rights," said Myrna Rue, a real estate agent in Red Lodge, an old coal-mining town of 2,300 at the edge of the Beartooth Mountains. During one week in mid-August, she was juggling 39 deals.
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The state is changing so fast that even those who study rural migration patterns have no idea how long the madness will last - or how many people are even coming. This summer, Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport added five flights a day.
What's far clearer is that the infusion of wealth is creating tension; Bozeman is now a city of haves and have-nots, and it is breeding resentment.
"It's changing the whole basis of the state,'' said Mike Garcia, owner of Northern Lights Trading Co. - River, Lakes and Oceans, an outdoor sports and recreation store. And it's not for the better, he said. The summer brought its usual share of inexperienced sportsmen, he said, but in larger numbers. "My wife would call me up and go, 'You need to come talk to these people. They're clueless.' "
The city's rental market has almost entirely evaporated, devoured by an Airbnb market fetching hundreds of dollars a night.
"Help Wanted" signs hang in windows along Main Street, which is desperate for employees to serve food and drinks, and sell cars and hiking boots - if they can afford to live here. Off-campus housing has dried up at Montana State University, where 16,700 students returned in August to in-person classes.
The Bozeman City Commission approved a $740,000 grant this month for a fund to coax developers to build affordable housing. The city, worried about its water supply, has imposed a surcharge on homeowners who use too much. It's asking developers to adorn their subdivisions with fewer plants. The new city manager is devising a plan to allow more density on less land, a smart-growth approach traditionally used by cities trying to preserve open space but an unusual strategy in a place that has long prided itself on having so much of it.
Terry Cunningham, a city commissioner who moved here from New York City 21 years ago, compared Bozeman to Boulder, Colo., which imposed strict building limits long ago.
"They've said they won't grow," he said. "Our issue is how to accommodate growth in a manner that's equitable."
Durham sold $30 million in real estate from June through September. It is a huge boost for business, but a change she laments, too, as she reflects on her lineage as a fifth-generation Montanan from ranching and construction stock.
"In a way, it's sad to see things selling at such a huge price point," she said.
She pulled her black Range Rover from the curb of the Carders' new house, her long platinum hair pulled behind the Bluetooth in her right ear. It was 78 degrees.
"I'll be really curious to see what all of these buyers think of our winters," she said.
Durham calls herself a "girly-girl who grew up hunting and fishing," part rugged Montanan in her brown suede cowboy boots and feather earrings, part the urban sophisticate her clients are looking for, in a white linen pantsuit, makeup and red nail polish.
Her work ethic and marketing skills as a solo boutique broker convinced Sotheby's to recruit her as an owner-broker in May, as the state was still reopening after its lockdown. The deals have not let up, even with the recent coronavirus surge.
When Robert Carder emailed from Los Angeles in July, Durham said a home in their price range, about $550,000, would be a hot commodity. She discovered The Lakes at Valley West, a subdivision of postage stamp lots on disappearing ranchland. Some houses are wrapped in Home Guard, awaiting completion.
The couple are neither hunters nor anglers. Valentina, 34, born and raised in Russia, said she "loves, loves, LOVES L.A." But when Santa Monica shut down as the virus ravaged Southern California, she lost her job as an aesthetician. Robert, a consultant who managed a bar and restaurant at night, had always said he would never leave California. But he had grown weary of "making cocktails in jars like it was a conveyor belt" to hand to customers through a takeout window, he said.
In Bozeman, they sense opportunity. "We think she'll be a superstar in town," Robert, 52, said of the salon his wife plans to open this week.
Durham's next clients sensed opportunity, too, and were putting their Nordic-style home on 58 acres outside of town on the market. She parked next to the three-car garage with a Jaguar inside and climbed a handcrafted northern fir staircase to the main level. David Rafes and his wife, Meg, plan to relocate to Hawaii, and today was staging day.
Rafes, 71, made his money in Dallas selling car turbochargers. "I hate to say this," he said, gazing at the sweeping views of the Gallatin Valley from his cedar deck, "but I'm taking advantage of the problems in the country with the covid thing."
The stager arrived, excited for the photographic possibilities provided by the 23-foot ceilings and doors made of Alder wood. The home listed at $3.5 million.
It was onto the next appointment. Durham's phone rang. It was a buyer named Brian from Corona del Mar in Orange County, Calif., inquiring about Holland Lake Lodge, a rustic lakeside resort near Missoula she has listed for $3.5 million.
"Give me the 30-second pitch!" Brian said. "It seems too good to be true."
Durham described a remote retreat with Montana charm, six guest cabins and a "truly magical waterfall." The only hitch was that under a Forest Service agreement, the property has to remain open to the public in some capacity.
"I get three calls like that a day," Durham said. "Everyone is just looking for what's next, I guess."
She checked in with a retired business owner from Indiana who had cold-called a few weeks earlier after watching the opening episodes of "Yellowstone," the Paramount series starring Kevin Costner about a sixth-generation Montana rancher trying to save his land.
The man has never been to Montana, but the swashbuckling image of Costner on a horse, wearing a Stetson and corralling his cattle, mesmerized him. Plus, there's politics. "If Joe Biden wins, I'm getting out of the Midwest," he told Durham.
He planned to fly out before the snow came.
Durham's assistant, Meredith Curtin, texted: They had six closings scheduled for the next week. "We really have to go through what their gifts are!!" Curtin wrote. In this market, closing gifts are touches that matter.
Not everyone coming here is buying. Durham found a coveted rental for Jennifer Stoker and her husband, Chad, who arrived in September to start a food delivery business for owners in the private Yellowstone Club at Big Sky.
When protesters marched in Chicago this summer, the couple was living in a two-bedroom apartment on Lake Shore Drive. They saw businesses looted and heard gunshots as they drove home. It scared them.
"Chicago was a great city," said Jennifer, who worked as private chef for a Yellowstone Club owner who lives outside Chicago. "But the state of it now makes me feel differently. I just don't feel safe." Her husband gave up his job as a golf course manager to help run the new food business. He had never been to Montana.
"We need a less stressful life," Jennifer said. "And it's pristine and breathtaking."
Friday afternoon had arrived, and Durham swung her car into the Sotheby's parking lot. She opened her laptop for status checks before the weekend. She was waiting on an electronic signature from a buyer who was closing on an estate listed for $10.9 million after just one visit to Montana.
"It seems crazy that someone could DocuSign for a purchase this big, right?" said Curtin, as she and Durham went over their to-do list at the office.
The inspection on another property had turned up a leak in the hot tub. There was an open house for brokers the following week. They would need to order a charcuterie board from Fink's.
Finally, there were the gifts. It was an easy call. A bottle of Brut and a $500 gift certificate for each buyer to the Sage Lodge, a resort in the Paradise Valley on the route to Yellowstone. Curtin added them to her list.