The state of the economy, immigration and security concerns will be the main issues SouthCoast residents hope to hear Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump discuss at the first presidential debate Monday night.
“America in general and New Bedford in particular have been built by immigrants,” said John Bullard, former mayor and current Northeast Administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “The diversity of our population has always been our greatest strength."
Bullard said that diversity "brings energy and has allowed us to connect in a positive way to the rest of the world. I will listen to which candidate wants to harness that energy by celebrating our differences for the strategic advantages they represent.”
Immigrants across the region are seeking citizenship in droves this year, said Helena DaSilva Hughes, executive director of the Immigrants' Assistance Center, Inc. in New Bedford. Hughes said that's partly out of the fear that “the Trump effect” has evoked among them, but more importantly, they want to vote in the November elections.
“Unfortunately, I’ve seen that immigration reform gets used by both sides as a political football and at the end, nothing happens. Once they get elected, it gets shelved,” she said. “People had a lot of faith in Obama’s plan but not much has changed.”
The first debate between Trump and Clinton will take place at 9 p.m. Monday at Hofstra University on Long Island; the same date as the first nationally televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960.
The topics are broad: America's direction, achieving prosperity and securing America.
Immigration and border security will be a hot topic, according to Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson, a Republican.
“We’ll be looking to see where candidates stand on these important issues because they cross every spectrum — education, jobs, and of course domestic and national security,” Hodgson said. “We want to build a border security plan so we can control who’s coming in and who’s going out. It includes regulating businesses that exploit illegal immigrants.”
Hodgson, who is supporting Trump, said he has built a successful financial empire and that shows that he is a problem-solver, who is capable of working with people and listening to them.
“He didn't just build that empire on his own,” he said. “He has a unique style but he's not a politician. People are going to pay close attention to who's the best to change the country in a way that is significant and put us on a better path, not the same old-same old.”
Doug Roscoe, a political science professor at UMass Dartmouth, said the debate it is going to be interesting, “one that will raise questions of style over policies and issues.”
The question will be whether Trump can be “presidential” and present “a calm demeanor” and whether Clinton can connect with the audience and display some warmth, he said.
In some ways, the candidates have to be more like each other to make an impact, said Peter Barney, Republican activist and former city assessor.
“She has to come across with some emotion and he has to come across as a leader,” he said.
Clinton will have to show a good grasp of the facts, which she probably will, and come across as more trustworthy and healthy enough to stand the term. And she has to be able to debate with Trump without coming across as a harridan, Barney said.
Trump has to show he has a good grasp of the facts, not resort to Trumpisms and appear as more calm and sedate, he said.
There have been candidates in the past who evoked strong reactions and debates that were contentious, but Bristol Community College history professor Donald Kilguss said he doubts any were as polarizing as this particular election.
“It’s so interesting that these two create an instant reaction — love or hate,” he said. “Maybe, in this case, you could count it a victory if either could smooth that edge out.”
Kilguss suggested that the Clinton campaign "has been trying to lower the bar for her and Trump keeps the bar really low. It will be interesting to see whether the debate changes anything.”
That remains to be seen.
Although there is a lot of hype over debates because they are one of few places where the public can see candidates together, “debates often do not change the trajectory of the race, barring a meltdown” said Peter Ubertaccio, political science professor at Stonehill College, who will be at Monday's debate.
“The country is very polarized so these debates may not mean much,” agreed Barney who believes they may sway a very small number, about 8 percent.
While Trump has been roundly criticized in the media, the negative coverage doesn't seem to matter, he said. Neither does the fact that Clinton has far outspent Trump in campaign advertising. The polls have the two neck and neck, he said.
Clinton also faces another challenge. Female candidates have a tough time being liked when they are being tough so it will be hard for Clinton to be on the attack with Trump and be liked at the same time, Roscoe said.
In a year when the election could bring the first woman president, an online petition is calling for more female debate moderators and some local residents have signed onto it.
Former Dartmouth Select Board member Diane Gilbert, a signee, said it should have been circulated much earlier in the cycle and she'd liked to have seen Rachel Maddow of MSNBC as one of the moderators.
“The DNC could have insisted on having a woman moderator. Perhaps if there's a groundswell of pushback, the powers that be can alter the last one,” she said. “I'm just happy that Hillary will be on the dais.”
Monday’s debate will be moderated by NBC anchor Lester Holt; the second debate by Martha Raddatz of ABC and Anderson Cooper of CNN; and the third by Chris Wallace, Fox News anchor.
Upcoming are the vice presidential debate between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence on Oct. 4, and the second and third presidential debates on Oct. 9 and 19.