The stage is set for what could be a pivotal moment in the 2016 U.S. presidential election as Republican Donald Trump, the brash real estate mogul, and Democrat Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state, debate each other for 90 minutes late Monday.
The two candidates are locked in a tight national contest, with political surveys showing Clinton with a slight edge. For for the millions of Americans tuning in to watch, it will be the first time they can see the two candidates face-to-face on the same stage, to judge their positions on key issues facing the country, to assess their reaction to each other's taunts and to imagine one of them as the country 45th president over the next four years.
Two more Trump-Clinton debates are scheduled in October, but it is the first face-off in the quadrennial U.S. presidential campaigns that usually draws the biggest audience. Some television industry officials are predicting that a record 100 million people may watch Monday's debate.
The event will be staged at Hofstra University outside New York City and comes six weeks before the November 8 election to pick the successor to President Barack Obama, who leaves office in January.
Clinton, looking to become the first female U.S. president, is the more seasoned debater, having gone head-to-head against political opponents over the last 16 years, including Obama in the Democratic presidential nominating contest she lost to him in 2008. Trump, seeking his first elected office, engaged in his initial debate just last year, eventually winning the party's nomination over 16 other Republican presidential contenders, many of them long-time politicians. Trump, however, has never faced a one-on-one encounter before.
Polls show that U.S. voters hold unfavorable views of both candidates, him a bit more than her. U.S. political analysts say that leaves Clinton to convince voters she is trustworthy after questions about her truthfulness surrounding her use of an unsecured private email server while she was the country's top diplomat from 2009 to 2013. Investigators concluded that her actions were "extremely careless," but not warranting of criminal charges. The analysts say the often-fact-challenged Trump has to prove he has a command of U.S. policies and can be trusted to become the next commander-in-chief.
NBC News television anchor Lester Holt is moderating the debate and the way he plays his role could be important as voters judge the candidates.
It is not clear whether Holt plans to point out obvious falsehoods the two candidates might make, as the Clinton campaign wants, or leaves it to the two candidates to rebut something factually wrong the other one says, as Trump wants.
Trump argues that journalists asking questions at the debates should be moderators, not fact-checkers.
"You're debating somebody, and if she makes a mistake or if I make a mistake, we'll take each other on," he said.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told NBC, "We don't want Donald Trump's lies, distortions to be a distraction." He said if Clinton is forced to rebut any factual errors expressed by Trump, it would leave Clinton with less time to talk about her policy plans.
Mook said he was worried that after the debate, analysts might hand Trump "the most improved award," while Clinton would be judged on "the fine points of policy."
Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said the debate will show the "natural connective tissue he has with the people. I can see that this man is ready for tonight."
The Commission on Presidential Debates, which is overseeing the three presidential debates and one vice presidential face-off between Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine on October 4, said Monday's debate will be divided into six 15-minute segments.
There are three announced topics -- America's Direction, Achieving Prosperity and Securing America -- with each of them discussed in two time segments.
Debate officials said Clinton will get the first question, with two minutes to answer, followed by Trump's two-minute response. That leaves about 10 minutes for back-and-forth debate in each segment. The topics set for discussion, however, are so open-ended, that they will leave the candidates plenty of time to make their best case to the American public on what they believe and why the other candidate is wrong.
In months of campaigning, wide policy differences have emerged between Trump and Clinton. They hold contrasting views on U.S. immigration policies, national health care reforms championed by Obama, the fight against terrorists in the Middle East and inside the United States, plans to boost job growth in the world's largest economy, crafting overseas trade deals and how to deal with the contentious issue of police relations with minority groups in the aftermath of a string of police shooting deaths of often unarmed African-American men in street confrontations.
In Photos: Hofstra Hosts 1st Presidential Debate