President Donald Trump has some ground to make up in the final campaign debate Thursday against Democrat Joe Biden after a widely panned performance in a face-off days before he tested positive for coronavirus and ended up in the hospital.

But rather than spend much time preparing, Trump has been angrily complaining at daily rallies that the deck is stacked against him. He claims the moderator, NBC’s Kristen Welker, won’t treat him fairly, that the topics aren’t to his liking and that a decision to mute the microphones at times when the other candidate is speaking is unfair.

Biden has been out of the public eye so far this week to prepare for the debate.

Trump’s campaign is looking for a way to draw new support -- or depress the vote for Biden. The former vice president, meanwhile, needs to do no harm at the debate to keep voters on his side and ward off a round of last-minute Democratic panic.

The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates took steps to avoid a repeat of the chaos at the first debate on Sept. 29 when Trump consistently interrupted Biden and spoke over him, blowing through the timing rules the campaigns had meticulously negotiated with the commission.

Now, each candidate will have two minutes of uninterrupted time to speak at the beginning of each of the debate’s six segments while their opponent’s microphone will be muted. The forum will begin at 9 p.m. New York time from Nashville and last for 90 minutes.

Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the commission, told MSNBC that the plan to mute microphones was done to ensure the campaigns follow the rules they agreed to.

“If you watch the first debate, you’re -- easy to see that those rules were not followed even though they agreed to it,” Fahrenkopf said. “We didn’t touch the rules -- all we did is put in a situation where, if someone is interrupting, they won’t be allowed to interrupt.”

Biden, known for his own long-winded answers, told a Wisconsin television station on Tuesday that he didn’t object to the mute function.

”I think it’s a good idea. I think there should be more limitations on us not interrupting.”

Trump heads into the night trailing Biden by 8.6 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average. He’s also behind in polling of most battleground states, though often so narrowly that it’s a virtual tie, particularly in Florida, a state both candidates need to win.

Presidential campaigns usually have three general election debates but Thursday’s will be the second and final. After Trump’s hospitalization for COVID-19 and with the next debate only 14 days after his positive test result, the commission decided to make the Oct. 15 forum virtual. Trump refused to participate and the two candidates instead held dueling televised town halls from different cities. The combined ratings for the two programs drew a fraction of the viewership that a debate normally attracts.

“You have one more debate that’s been heightened because the second one didn’t occur. Debates matter,” said David Winston, a veteran Republican strategist.

While Trump and his allies claimed victory after the first debate, internal Republican polling showed that Biden’s lead widened after the Sept. 29 debate, before narrowing slightly again. Biden also raised $21.5 million the following day.

Even former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Trump debate coach, said the president was “too hot. With all that heat, you lose the light,” he said immediately after the debate.

But some Trump allies see a way for Trump to regain his campaign footing.

”The pressure is on the candidate that’s behind, if you believe that Donald Trump is truly behind,” said Republican strategist Charlie Gerow, a Trump supporter. “If he picks up the undecided and persuadable voters that he needs it goes a long way towards assuring his election. In that regard, taking the case to Joe Biden, which nobody has really effectively done, is very, very important.”

Biden allies are hoping he repeats his performance of the first debate, when he spoke when possible directly to the camera, ignoring Trump.

“I’m hoping to see from Vice President Biden what we saw in the first debate. Very steady, expert leadership with an actual plan for the pandemic and for a road to recovery,” said Patti Solis Doyle, Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign manager. “The last debate was a very clear choice between chaotic leadership versus a steady hand and I am hoping that will again be illustrated on Thursday night.”

Trump Complaints

In addition to complaints about the moderator and the mute button, the Trump team says it believed the debate would focus on foreign policy, something that neither the commission nor Welker had ever committed to publicly. The Trump campaign said it would force Biden to account for his nearly five decades of foreign policy positions.

“President Trump is committed to debating Joe Biden regardless of last-minute rule changes from the biased commission in their latest attempt to provide advantage to their favored candidate,” Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said in a statement Monday. Stepien also wrote a two-page letter to the commission, accusing it of pro-Biden biases.

The topics for Thursday’s debate are: the coronavirus, “American families,” racial issues, climate change, national security and leadership, according to the commission.

Trump has long downplayed the threat posed by the virus and has only intensified that message since his recovery. Biden has hammered Trump for what he considers a cavalier approach toward the pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 people in the U.S.

Biden’s team expects Trump to talk about everything other than the job he’s done as president, so Biden’s focus will be on detailing the ways he believes Trump has let down the American people on the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy and national security, a campaign aide said. Biden will argue that he has plans to address the challenges the country faces and keep his focus on speaking directly to the American people.

Hunter Biden

The Trump campaign has indicated that he is especially eager to attack Biden on a recent report in the New York Post that purports to cite emails between Biden’s son, Hunter, and leaders of the Ukrainian energy firm whose board he sat on.

Unverified emails the paper published after obtaining them from Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani show a Ukrainian businessman thanking Hunter Biden “for the opportunity” to meet Joe Biden, who was vice president at the time.

But the Post doesn’t prove the meeting happened or that Biden spoke to his son about it. The Biden campaign said a review of the vice president’s calendars shows no such meeting. It has also repeatedly stressed that policy positions taken by the U.S. government and key allies were not influenced by Hunter Biden’s work.

Another purported email says that Hunter Biden was receiving US$10 million annually from a Chinese billionaire for “introductions alone,” though it is unclear who was involved in the introductions. Trump has long sought to cast Biden as soft on China, believing it a winning message with voters even as his own record includes plenty of praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Biden will be prepared to face attacks on Hunter Biden’s business dealings abroad, the Biden aide said, arguing that Trump’s efforts to bring up the younger Biden during the first debate backfired as the candidate was able to talk about supporting his son through addiction recovery, something that many Americans can relate to.