RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Joe Biden's campaign has this morning cancelled all of vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris' travel through the end of the week. The decision was made after two people who traveled with her a week ago on October 8, including her communications director, tested positive for the coronavirus. The campaign has said that neither of the people had close contact with Sen. Harris or with the former vice president and that Sen. Harris was last tested yesterday with the result coming back negative. The development comes ahead of what was supposed to be a presidential debate tonight. President Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, were expected to take questions from Americans town hall style. Instead, there will be two separate town hall events happening at the same time on two different television networks. That's how democracy looks in 2020 as we race toward November 3. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us this morning. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: So how did we end up with dueling town halls?
LIASSON: We ended up here because they were - the two candidates were supposed to square off in Miami tonight, but after President Trump got the coronavirus, the independent commission that sets up the debates and makes the rules decided to make that debate virtual. President Trump said he wasn't interested in that, and he decided not to come. Here's what he said.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, I'm not going to waste my time in a virtual debate. That's not what debating is all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate - it's ridiculous. And then they cut you off whenever they want.
LIASSON: So they cut off your mic whenever they want. Joe Biden went ahead and said he'd do his own televised town hall on ABC. Then NBC, in a bit of counterprogramming, confirmed that it would do an hour-long debate with Trump. Both of these events will start at 8 p.m. The ABC event with Biden will run a little longer so as to match the 90 minutes that the network gave Trump a month ago.
MARTIN: I mean, (laughter) so this is like a ratings war. It's Donald Trump trying to one-up Joe Biden. How do you expect all this to go?
LIASSON: Well, I don't know who's going to get the bigger ratings tonight. But at this point, the two candidates should be looking for votes, not eyeballs. It's unlikely that these two separate events at the same time will be must-watch TV. Past televised town halls have not attracted the same number of viewers as an actual debate. As to the format, it would seem to favor Biden's political skills, his ability to empathize with the people who will be asking the questions. Donald Trump generally doesn't engage with the people in town halls directly. He tends to stick to his message. Here he is at his last town hall, responding to a woman who asked a question about what would happen to coverage for her preexisting condition if the Affordable Care Act was repealed.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I want to know what you are going to do about that.
TRUMP: So, first of all, I hope you are taken seriously. I hope you are. And we are not going to hurt anything having to do with preexisting conditions. We're not going to hurt preexisting conditions and, in fact, just the opposite.
LIASSON: So that turned into a five-minute exchange with the moderator, George Stephanopoulos, pointing out that Donald Trump is in court right now trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and hasn't come up with his own plan to replace it yet. The problem for Trump is that he has to change the dynamic of the race from a referendum on his leadership to a binary choice between him and Joe Biden. And to do that, he has to go very aggressively to disqualify Biden. And that's just hard to do in a town hall format where voters expect answers to their questions, not scorched-earth attacks.
MARTIN: Right. So can we just take a step back? I mean, we're only 19 days away from Election Day, really, which is the end of the election season. What's the state of play?
LIASSON: The state of play is that millions of people have already voted. Polls have shown a steady lead for Biden. That lead is smaller in the swing states. A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll just out shows that Biden has an 11-point lead. But the Trump campaign says it's within striking distance in many places. But if you look at where the candidates are going, Donald Trump is going to hold a rally tomorrow night in Macon, Ga., of all places. It's the kind of place and the kind of state that a Republican candidate should take for granted. But it shows you how the map of competitive states has expanded and how Trump is playing defense.
MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, thank you.
LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.