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Why Team Trump Should Worry About the Debate in One Quote

September 26, 2016, 3:52 PM UTC

With polls showing the presidential race tightening into something resembling a dead heat, the pressure will be on both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump tonight to turn in command performances at their first debate. But with Trump still facing an uphill climb to winning the electoral college, the pressure is arguably heavier on the Republican nominee to shake up the race.

Says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, half the bipartisan team that conducts the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showing Clinton with a six-point national edge: “For him to get from where he is to winning, something—some spark, something that hasn’t happened—would have to happen.”

Is Trump ready? He appears to be preparing for his debut general election face-off the same way he did for the primary debates, which is to say he isn’t preparing much at all. And in case there was any question about whether he’s mastered his policy brief since clinching the nomination, consider his performance nine days ago onstage at the Waldorf Astoria before the Economic Club of New York.

In a “fireside chat” that concluded the event, hedge fund billionaire John Paulson asked the candidate to summarize his economic plan and quantify how much each of its components would contribute to the 3.5 percent growth Trump promises to unleash. It was hardly a gotcha question—Trump had just moments earlier delivered a speech on that plan, one that Paulson helped craft as an advisor to the campaign. For the concision, coherence and clarity that make a crisp debate performance, Trump’s answer left a lot to be desired. It’s too long to quote in full here, but this is how it started:

“I watch the world and I look at China and other countries. And if China goes down with GDP to 7 percent or even 8 percent, it’s like they’ll have a revolution. And then what do they do? They start devaluing, devaluing, they do all sorts of things, and they get it back on track one way or the other. And I’ve had friends come to me that have been devastated, people that are manufacturers, that are great manufacturers, very successful people, but they become less and less successful because they can’t beat the system. In this way, too, it’s a rigged system. And they’re almost doing well and then, boom, there’s a massive devaluation in China or other countries. And there are plenty of other countries out there. Some are actually hurting China now. But the fact is when they have 7 percent, and you see it when they start dropping to 7 or 8 percent, they consider that to be a disaster. And yet we’re stuck at 1 percent, probably the real number is 1 percent but certainly no more than 2 percent. And we try and learn to live with it. We can’t do that anymore.”

The answer is not a picture of concision—to put it mildly. But the Republican primary debates proved a winning performance is at least as much about animal spirits as policy mastery. As The Atlantic’s David Frum wrote after Trump romped over the field in the second GOP bout: “We remain primates, who seek from our pack-leaders qualities of both prudence and strength. We don’t make those assessments with the conscious parts of our brains, but from places more primordial. Trump has rocketed to first place by deliberately humiliating his competitors.”

Clinton has studied those tapes. Monday’s meeting will reveal what she’s learned — and whether Trump can repeat the trick against a single adversary bent on laying him low.

A version of this story originally appeared in Fortune’s newsletter, the CEO Daily. You can subscribe here.