The stage is set and security is at the ready. Today, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will face off in a critical debate that could change the game in the race for the White House.

The first of three make-or-break encounters has been marked by a series of lengthy and secretive negotiations.

Here's what you never knew about behind the scenes in the Presidential preparations.

The rules have been secretly negotiated

Terms of the debate are typically negotiated between the two parties and kept secret. This time, a few snippets have been released by officials including the fact that Clinton gets the first question.


She will have two minutes to answer, followed by two minutes for Trump's response. The entire debate will broken into 15-minute "pods" and it will be moderated by Lester Holt of NBC News - a registered Republican who Trump has already branded a Democrat.

It will take place in Hempstead New York, in a 1000-seat venue in front of university students and a crowd from the each side of the campaign. Whether or not Clinton's podium will feature a built-in step-ladder because she is shorter remains a subject of speculation.

It comes after a picture of a crowd with its back to Clinton taking selfies en masse went viral and is expected to be a watershed for the race that is locked at 46 per cent to 44 for Trump.

Listen: Political commentator Dominic Carter speaks to Newstalk ZB's Rachel Smalley ahead of the debate

Clinton wants Trump fact-checked

The role of the moderator is a crucial part of the secret negotiations and Clinton's team have been pushing for Holt to call out Trump if he is caught telling porkies on the podium.

"All that we're asking is that, if Donald Trump lies, that it's pointed out," Clinton's campaign manager Robby Mook said.

He wants Holt to correct Trump in order for Clinton to focus on her own performance saying "we don't want Donald Trump's lies, distortions to be a distraction."

Clinton's team is also burdened by the fact she will need to perform much better than Trump in order to be considered having won. Trump's unpredictable performances mean him not having a major gaffe on stage will be considered a result.


Republican strategist Ryan Williams told NBC this week "Trump has a very low bar".

just go onstage and don't look completely unhinged.

"If he's somewhat statesmanlike with his trademark bravado, he'll do fine."

Confidence vs. calculation: The rules governing the debate between Trump and Clinton have been kept under wraps. Photo / AP
Confidence vs. calculation: The rules governing the debate between Trump and Clinton have been kept under wraps. Photo / AP

The audience could be off-putting

Some members of the 1000-strong audience could be distracting for the candidates, particularly after this week Trump announced he would invite Gennifer Flowers, who had an affair with Clinton's husband and former President, Bill Clinton.

She reportedly 'agreed' to attend, however that was later denied by Trump's running mate Mike Pence who said she would not be there.

The rumoured Flowers invitation came in response to Clinton's earlier decision to invite Mark Cuban - a Trump critic - and was meant to remind people the Republican was a "great counterpunch", according to a member of his team.

Trump has also antagonised Clinton in the lead-up saying she ought to "rest" after dramatic pictures at September 11 commemorations saw her appear to faint earlier this month.

Clinton is using a Trump stand-in

Clinton's long-time aide Philippe Reines is playing the role of Trump in private practice sessions, according to the New York Times.

The revelation was followed by intense speculation over who could be playing the part in critical mock debates designed to help her get an edge on Trump with some suggesting it could have been done by Alec Baldwin or Kevin Spacey for their bellicose on-screen characters.

The choice of Reines shows she "wants an opponent in her mock debates who knows her flaws and how to exploit them and who is fearless about getting under her skin," the Times reports.

Clinton once described him as "passionate and shrewd" and he is said to be not afraid to "push her buttons".

Trump hasn't practised at all

In contrast to Clinton's diligent preparations, Trump is said to have barely prepared, opting to speak off the cuff rather than rehearse specific sound bites.

"He prefers spitballing ideas with his team rather than honing them into crisp, two-minute answers," the New York Times reports.

He is likely to stick to his big picture issues like immigration, defence and the economy, rather than delve into policy-minutiae. His advisers have reportedly warned him to make sure to listen to Clinton's arguments in order to respond and avoid picking fights that won't benefit him.

Clinton will speak first in the debate that will take place in front of a live audience in Hempstead, New York. Photo / AP
Clinton will speak first in the debate that will take place in front of a live audience in Hempstead, New York. Photo / AP

What to expect

The hotly-anticipated debate is expected to be explosive as both candidates try to get under each others' skin and prove that the other is unfit for the presidency.

Clinton is likely to focus on Trump's finances and refusal to disclose his tax returns, pounce on his lies and inconsistencies and generally appear cool, calm and collected in the face of his brashness.

Trump's team want him to focus on his broad themes that play well with his support base rather than risk "mangling facts". He is likely to play to his main strengths - unpredictability and unassailable confidence.

With Clinton leading slightly in the polls going into the debate, there is no doubt it's 90 minutes that could change the face of America.