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President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden square off Thursday night in their final debate before the Nov. 3 election, hoping to draw one final comparison and make one final argument about who best can run the White House in what is arguably the most unusual election cycle in decades.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March threw conventional campaigning out the door, forcing Biden and Trump to cancel the confetti-sprinkled nomination conventions and arena-sized rallies that have become synonymous with decades of presidential election cycles. 

The 77-year-old Biden has run a campaign that included long stretches of no public appearances, with nearly every event that he has held taking place in front small, socially-distanced crowds. Yet he has essentially been the frontrunner throughout, maintaining a solid six-to-eight-point lead, according to most polls.

With much the country shut down over the virus, the typically long, slow summer of campaigning was also forced to deal with another unanticipated development: the social justice protests that swept across the national, sometimes with violent force, in response to the May 25 death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police.

The virus, and related voters concerns about having to show up at crowded polling stations, have led to record early mail-in voting. As many as 47.5 million Americans so far have cast early ballots, including an estimated 33.5 million by mail.

Both candidates tested negative for the coronavirus before Thursday night’s debate in Nashville that will be moderated by NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker. 

The topic traditionally associated with the final presidential debate of a cycle – foreign policy – will not be the focus of Thursday’s debate. Instead, the candidates are expected to argue such topics as health care, the economy and climate change – format changes the Trump campaign opposed. 

The first debate, in September, was underscored by each candidate interrupting and talking over both each other and moderator Fox News’ Chris Wallace, to the extent that the Presidential Debate Commission has said it will mute the candidates’ respective mics if the cacophony resumes.

The planned second debate between the two politicians earlier this month was scrapped after Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19 and Biden refused to share a debate stage with him; Trump subsequently refused to participate in a virtual town hall. 

Both campaigns have failed to escape the traditional “October Surprise” associated with the end-game of presidential races. Trump, 74, contracted COVID-19 earlier this month, forcing the commander-in-chief into the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for three days. More recently a cache of emails have emerged suggesting that Biden stood to profit off son Hunter Biden’s overseas business deals.

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