Which Donald Trump will show up tonight?

After all the years I’ve spent watching American politics and the ebb and flow of elections, I tend to turn a jaundiced eye toward over-hyped events such as tonight’s debate which everyone is describing as a make or break moment in the campaign. But that’s not the case today. We’ve reached a rare confluence of events which will, I believe, have the future of this race ready to shift drastically one way or the other. After one of the more contentious primaries we’ve ever seen and a summer of nasty trench warfare between the two major party candidates, along with GOP infighting which has still not entirely evaporated, this could truly be the show of shows. As we’ve covered here endlessly, the polls have closed in recent weeks to the point where the contest stands on a knife’s edge. Current estimates show that as many as 80% of registered voter will be tuning in, and many of them have not yet made up their minds or are open to changing sides.

One of the biggest questions of the day is whether or not Lester Holt, in his first attempt at moderating such a contest, will choose to be a referee or a judge. (CNN Money)

The Commission on Presidential Debates has some advice for debate moderators this fall: leave the fact-checking to the candidates.

The Trump campaign is taking the same position. So are some former moderators, like Jim Lehrer, who has facilitated twelve presidential debates.

But many others — including a wide array of journalists — want the man moderating Monday night’s debate, Lester Holt, to intervene if egregious lies are said on stage.

As a result, fact-checking, normally a pretty staid subject, is now the focus of a roiling debate in political and journalistic circles.

The only real question to be answered, at least for my money, is which Trump will show up, because there have most assuredly been two Donalds out there on the campaign trail from time to time. When he’s in his comfort zone and not trying to cram himself into a box designed by professional campaign managers, Donald swings for the fences and enthusiastically broadcasts a glowing, if somewhat ill defined vision for a future of American excellence. This leads to some questionable or even cringeworthy moments to be sure, but it also fires up those willing to take a chance on the newcomer.

That’s the Donald who is most beloved by his supporters, but there have also been times when Teleprompter Donald shows up. You can tell when he’s spent a bit too much time listening to veteran campaign staffers or the various pundits who regularly declare his campaign a disaster. That’s when Teleprompter Donald steps up and focuses on not making any more “mistakes” providing the chattering class with fresh ammo to unload on him. It’s a safer route, but at the same time that’s not what the audience paid to see. Teleprompter Donald doesn’t excite anyone. So which will it be and how will the GOP nominee handle the opportunity to face down Clinton directly for the first time?

I was watching Morning Joe today and they had Donna Brazile (the recent replacement for Debbie Wasserman-Schultz) on as a guest. She was exuding the usual confidence which any good Democratic spokesperson is required to muster, but her opening comment on the debate really caught my attention. After describing Donald Trump as a “disruptor” who can climb up and “shake the tree” in such a contest, she said that the most important thing for Hillary Clinton to do was to make it about the future.

I’d have to agree with her sentiment, but good luck with that. Obviously Hillary would love to have the debate be all about the future. Most candidates would because that allows them to speak exclusively of their own plans and leave it to the audience to guess how well such a strategy might work out. But Hillary Clinton isn’t a candidate of the future. For her it’s all about the past, and if Donald Trump is one tenth the competitor I believe he is, that is what will be under discussion for most of the night. It could be the recent past (e-mail scandal, failed relations with other countries, pay for play at the Clinton Foundation) or the distant past (Hillarycare, young black men as super-predators or anything to do with her husband). Clinton has essentially zero accomplishments to point to and a closet full of skeletons which less engaged voters may be only dimly aware of. This is a target rich environment for Trump and if he’s truly ready for this fight he will be giving the country a tour of Clinton World which will leave Hillary stumbling for explanations.

If that happens, Katie bar the door. Particularly if Clinton demonstrate any signs of weariness or fatigue, this could tip over the entire table. Of course, with Trump being Trump, he could also find a way to make it blow up in his face. I’ll be firing up the popcorn and waiting to see. This should be a moment in history you’ll want to tune in for.