What voters hope to learn from Sunday’s presidential debate showdown in St. Louis

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton shake hands after the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton shake hands after the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. AP

The first debate’s lingering impressions of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: He’s outrageous, and she knows her stuff.

Second debates, which Trump and Clinton will have Sunday, have a history of either confirming or correcting first debate impressions.

In 2012, President Barack Obama seemed languid and the GOP’s Mitt Romney got a boost. Obama came back strong in the second debate, and was on his way to re-election.

Most notably, President Ronald Reagan in 1984 ended the first debate with Democrat Walter Mondale with a long, rambling monologue. Questions were raised whether the 73-year-old president was up to the job; Reagan quickly erased those doubts in the second debate.

I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.

President Ronald Reagan to Democrat Walter Mondale in their second 1984 debate

Now it’s Trump’s turn to overcome the brash, even offensive and rude image he projected when he and Clinton first met. Clinton has a mission, too, voters said: Continue to project competence and confidence and somehow give people reasons to trust her.

Paul Levinson, a New York-based author who’s written extensively on media, predicts Sunday’s audience could swell to 90 million to 95 million.

That’s more than the first debate’s 84 million.

“Trump is a bigger-than-life entertainment figure – his penchant for saying outlandish things, behaving like an oaf, impulsively verbally attacking people – all of that will attract viewers hoping for a circus performance,” Levinson said.

And that could sour the shrinking pool of undecided voters on Trump, once and for all. They currently make up roughly 6 percent of the electorate, a significant number in a campaign that polls find is close.

Polling finds that 12 states with 140 electoral votes remain too close to call. A total of 270 electoral votes are needed to win. The biggest remaining prizes include Florida, with 29 electoral votes, Pennsylvania, with 20, and North Carolina, with 15. Clinton is ahead in all three, but not by much.

“He’s got to stay on point,” said Evelyn Murray, a Raleigh, North Carolina, hardware store owner and Trump supporter.

Pollster Patrick Murray explained why. “There’s no question that the first debate moved the needle. But those gains are not locked in,” said the director of the nonpartisan Monmouth University Polling Institute. “The second debate will determine that.”

“I consider this game 2 of a three-game series and Clinton won game 1,” said Frank Sadler, a Republican strategist. “The only difference is we know they’ll play game 3 but it won’t matter if Trump doesn’t win game 2.”

Latest presidential poll averages: Hillary Clinton 44.2 percent, Donald Trump 40.5, Gary Johnson 6.9 and Jill Stein 2.4 percent, according to RealClearPolitics

Kae Roberts, a Charlotte school media specialist, is an unaffiliated voter who backed Romney in 2012.

“The last debate convinced me Trump’s pretty unstable in certain areas,” she said.

But she’s still not in Clinton’s corner. Clinton, she said, keeps reciting the same Democratic platform and “all she’d do is create more big government.”

Roberts is not optimistic that Sunday’s debate will make up her mind. “I’m looking for someone to convince me they’ll do something intelligent,” she said. “But that seems to be an oxymoron in this election.”

Here are some questions that voters in two swing states, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, are looking for the candidates to address.

Can Trump be more statesmanlike?

“Talk about matters at hand,” said Marissa Ritter, a motor truck service adviser from Lake Ariel, Pennsylvania. She echoed the sentiment of several voters who want to see how Trump would operate as president.

Murray expects Clinton to keep bringing up Trump’s insults and stumbles; she wants the Republican to keep talking about policy. The town hall format should help his informal style, supporters say, but he has to fill in lots of blanks on policy.

Her recommendation: Show how he’d get rid of Obamacare. Murray and her daughter pay $850 a month for health insurance coverage. Last year they paid $700. “It’s unaffordable now,” Murray said.

Be clear and honest.

Evelyn Murray, Charlotte Republican, on Donald Trump

Can Clinton motivate my friends and me to turn out?

Veronica Weyhrauch, a Penn State student majoring in international politics and economics, is a big Clinton fan. But she understands why many her age are not.

“A lot of young people don’t think the system works for them, and they see her as symbolic of that,” Weyhrauch said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, got an overwhelming majority among voters 29 and under in the Democratic primary, and the question now is not so much whether they’ll turn to Trump – polls say they won’t – but whether they’ll vote at all.

This debate is important in convincing them, Weyhrauch said. “They think she’s more of the same,” she said, “and they need to see and hear that that’s not true.”

Is Gary Johnson a viable alternative?

The Libertarian did not poll well enough to be included Sunday, but disgusted voters are weighing supporting him if they continue not to like what they see.

“I want another choice,” said John Fitzgerald, an unaffiliated voter from Charlotte.

He finds that Trump “clearly articulates a message and direction that is best for the country, but is way too erratic and socially unaware to be commander in chief or head of state. Hillary has the experience, but represents a continuation of the policies practiced by both parties for over 20 years.”

To Hank Federal, a registered Republican from Charlotte, it’s up to Trump. He thought Trump’s performance at the first debate was “bombastic.”

Sunday, he said, “I want to see if, in any way, Trump shows leadership qualities in the town hall format. If not, then I’ll keep moving to Johnson.”

Will there be more detail about precisely where Clinton and Trump stand?

“Talk about immigration and what’s going on with that,” said Tara Glenny, a practical nursing student at Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology who backs Trump. “If we keep accepting illegal immigrants, where are the jobs for us?”

Michael Straw, who heads the Penn State College Republicans, is undecided. He wants to hear more about Russia. Trump has cited Russian leader Vladimir Putin for his strength, while Clinton has warned that Putin is a dangerous dictator.

“If I see Donald Trump more friendly to Russia, it would confirm my impression I should be worried about him,” Straw said.

His impressions from the debate, as with other voters, will be crucial.

Addressing an issue substantively will matter, Straw said. “Standing on the debate stage, there’s less confusion,” he said. “You can say where you stand, and then it becomes hard to go back on that issue.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid