As i mentioned briefly in my response to eds last note, i spent much of last week on a 13-hour road trip from new york city to chicago in order to drop my daughter at college (good news, only two covid-19 cases detected in the almost 1,000 students tested at the last count). much of that time was spent driving through pennsylvania, which has arguably become the most important swing state in the nation.

Pennsylvania is, as southern liberal politico james carville once put it, philadelphia and pittsburgh with alabama in between. philly is home to the university of pennsylvania, which boasts some of the worlds most cutting-edge cancer research, and pittsburgh (home to one of the favourite football teams of my youth, the steelers) is one of the many rustbelt cities that is successfully reinventing itself as a hub for millennial knowledge workers (the waterfront is really stunning, as is the architecture).

In between those two places, there are hundreds of miles of farmland (see my corn video, here i used to detassel this stuff as a kid!) and plenty of people who voted for donald trump in 2016. hes done nothing for them, of course. the broadband is still spotty, the highway potholes rife and the debt mounting. pre-covid, pennsylvania was just starting to get its post-financial crisis footing and was hoping to position itself, with a bit of help, to become the next biotech or advanced manufacturing hub. now, post-covid, the state budget has been slashed by $7bn, and unless theres some kind of federal bailout after november, there will probably be massive job cuts in both the public and private sectors.

Unfortunately, state politics amid the pandemic reflect the national divide. as one source in the pennsylvania government put it to me, when anyone tries to slow down and plan out a thoughtful reopening, they get lambasted as being too liberal. when anyone makes the point that we need to avoid total economic collapse, they are labelled crazy conservatives. its just all finger pointing. and if we dont get federal help after november, it will be all out war.

Which brings me to the key point that joe biden must hammer home in tuesdays televised debate (which, btw, ed and i will be blogging live along with the fts us managing editor, peter spiegel tune in!): its all about the presidents mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. in some ways, little else right now matters. but in other ways, the trump covid debacle is just illustrative of the fact that hes not a leader, hes a paranoid narcissist. he isnt capable of respecting or caring for others thats the dsm definition of narcissistic personality disorder.

Biden, on the other hand, is nothing if not empathetic and respectful. my one worry about the debates is that bidens inherent dignity will make it difficult for him to handle trump, who is like the guy in oncoming traffic who wins a war over who will swerve by pulling off his steering wheel. i think the way forward is to treat trump like the toddler he is, speak slowly and make him sputter (elizabeth warrens quip, donald, its time to put on your big boy pants comes to mind), and double down on empathy when addressing the audience. my fingers are crossed that the people in pa and the other swing states wont fall for a conman twice.

Ed, i know you are relatively bullish on bidens ability to best trump. any final advice to uncle joe in advance of the debates?

Thats a hard one, rana. id like to imagine that when they go low, we go high, etc would be effective against trump but i am not sure that it is. i know that calling out trumps lies doesnt always work, although biden has somewhat rashly promised that he will fact check trump during the debate. ignoring trumps provocations is obviously not an option. nor, apparently, is getting down in the mud with him. so i am left with high-minded inanities, such as be yourself, prepare a couple of zingers and make the positive case for your presidency.

As i wrote in my column, biden has a low bar to clear. he just needs to be coherent, not forget names and enunciate sentences clearly. he should not jeopardise his lead. he should aim for a non-event in other words. in practice, trump will do his best to provoke biden by accusing him as us vice-president of having corruptly aided his son, hunter biden. i imagine bidens response to this attack line has been endlessly prepped. my temptation, if i were him, would be to open both barrels and talk one by one about the aggrandising shamelessness of donald trump jnr, eric trump, ivanka trump and jared kushner. but that would probably be getting too much down in the mud for the tastes of the consultant class.

Are they right? i would admire a debate where trump is mercilessly exposed at every opportunity for who he is. in my view liberal democracy should be aggressively championed. but i am told that this would not go down well with the centrist voter. it is an oddly asymmetric politics where one candidate can endlessly profit from tearing up the rule book while the other must cleave ever more closely to it. my gut tells me the old rule book is dead. my head is a little more tentative. either way, i much look forward to live blogging on the debate with you and peter.