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Presidential debate set up

It’s debate night. What does that mean for the rest of the ticket?

The sprint for the White House kicks off tonight in Atlanta as President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump face off for their first debate. Check out CNN’s Phil Mattingly explaining how this debate will work.

It’s also the start of a new phase in the 2024 presidential contest that will help shape the down-ballot races for key Senate and House seats.

Candidates and incumbents running in competitive races will look at tonight’s Biden-Trump debate as a stage-setting exercise for their own elections.

After all, that was the message Senate GOP leaders delivered to Trump when he met with them earlier this month. For Republicans, the decision has been made — they’ll be joined at the hip with Trump. This could help them flip Senate seats in Montana and Ohio but may be a liability elsewhere.

For Democrats, the showdown in Atlanta will help begin to decide whether Biden will be a benefit or a drag on their own campaigns. Biden has been stuck in the low 40s in approval ratings — or even lower — for most of his presidency, and he’s trailing Trump in swing-state polls.

But the president has lots of money, some key legislative accomplishments and a huge campaign infrastructure, all of which benefits Democrats nationally. Check out this new Biden ad in Wisconsin, which says Trump “failed us” and Biden reopened the country after Covid.

“Trump talks and talks, Joe Biden gets sh*t done,” the ad says

The Republican strategy carries some major risks too. Trump is nothing if not unpredictable. He’s practically guaranteed to say something that blows up the party’s messaging on key issues. If it doesn’t happen tonight, it’ll happen sometime over the next 130 days.

Trump’s legal problems will also have a big impact on the fall campaign. The Supreme Court is poised to rule on whether Trump is immune from prosecution over his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Trump faces sentencing in the New York City hush-money case on July 11.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune’s advice for Trump tonight — “Don’t take the bait” — is worth highlighting here, especially in the context of the Senate races the GOP is trying to win this year. Senate Republicans in particular have seen their prospects undermined by Trump in recent cycles, so they want to avoid a repeat of that in November.

“In many ways, you kind of want to give President Biden as much rope as possible. Because I don’t think that probably is going to play well for him,” Thune said. “If [Trump] shows strength and leadership but maintains a calm demeanor and lets Biden go — I think it’ll go well for him.”

Among Trump’s top GOP allies on the Hill, there’s an effort to lower expectations for the former president heading into the debate.

“President Trump has basically said, you know, he expects Biden to do a good job,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) told us. “I anticipate [Biden’s] going to come in ready to go. But at the end of the day, the agenda sucks.”

Democrats are banking on Biden’s experience in high-pressure situations to carry him tonight. Biden has been spending all week doing debate prep at Camp David.

Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), the No. 3 House Democrat, noted that Biden has “been on the debate stage longer than I’ve been alive.”

“[Biden] knows what he’s doing and he’ll accurately call Donald Trump an extremist,” Aguilar added.

On the ground in ATL: This won’t be your typical presidential TV debate. It’s being held months earlier than in previous White House races; Biden and Trump aren’t even their parties’ formal nominees yet. It also features a rematch between a former president and the incumbent who defeated him. That hasn’t occurred in more than 130 years.

There’s no live audience for the debate, which will be held at CNN’s Atlanta studios. That means much of the fanfare surrounding the event will take place off-site.

Former Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) and her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, are hosting a fundraiser and watch party tonight. According to the invitation, the event will feature “post-debate remarks” from Trump, but it’s unclear if he’ll attend in person. RNC Chairman Michael Whatley and Co-Chair Lara Trump are named as co-hosts.

The “special guests” listed on the invitation are a who’s-who of potential Trump running mates, including Sens. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) Wesley Hunt (R-Texas) and Donalds, as well as North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Other surrogates like Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), who has emerged as a key Trump ally and participated in a debate prep session with the former president, will be in Atlanta too.

The Biden campaign has set up hundreds of debate watch parties, and the president and First Lady Jill Biden will drop by one in Atlanta afterward. The Bidens then head to North Carolina for a post-debate rally on Friday.

Sucking up the oxygen: Tens of millions of Americans will watch the debate tonight. But none of the House and Senate congressional campaign committees told us they had any special fundraising plans for debate night.

— Andrew Desiderio and Max Cohen

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Editorial photos provided by Getty Images. Political ads courtesy of AdImpact.