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Voters settle in to scrutinize candidates in detail

Media columnist David Zurawik says that Hillary Clinton should avoid TV appearances as much as possible between now and the general election. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)

As the presidential campaign moves on to the seven-week stretch before the first nationally televised debate by the party nominees, the voters have the serious task of sorting out who can best be trusted to lead this great country over the next four years.

On the simplest level, the choice is between Donald Trump, who denies the basic premise that this is a great country and pledges to make it great again, and Hillary Clinton, who says it is great now and she will keep it so.

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Two minor-party candidates, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee, and Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee, will be using the time trying to build 15 percent support in five designated public opinion polls to qualify in the three debates conducted by the independent Commission on Presidential Debates, starting on Sept. 26.

Right now, Mr. Johnson with about 5 percent support is considered to have a better chance than Stein. Even a minor third-party vote could affect the outcome, as longshot Ralph Nader demonstrated in 2000.

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Mr. Nader, on the Green Party ticket then, won 97,488 votes in critical Florida, enough to deny Democrat Al Gore the majority vote over Republican George W. Bush in the contested election that was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. One academic review concluded that 60 percent of Mr. Nader's voters would have gone for Mr. Gore, more than covering the 537-vote spread by which he lost to Bush in the official count.

Three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate are scheduled this fall, with a single moderator yet to be announced and no panels of journalists posing questions. The commission is proceeding on the assumption Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton will participate, although Mr. Trump during the primaries balked at one debate run by Fox News in a spat over one of its moderators.

In light of his recent slippage in the polls, it's unlikely he would now risk a repetition of that behavior. In any event, the first debate at Hofstra University on Long Island figures to draw a record viewership, as the first head-to-head verbal confrontation between the two major-party nominees after months of long-range, bitter exchanges.

Up to now, relatively few voters have heard either of the major party nominees in person at primary rallies or at party conventions. They have relied instead on television appearances and news media accounts of the candidates' campaigns and speeches.

So the debates will be of critical importance in shaping voters' decisions in a campaign in which passions and tempers have been aroused. The nation's boiling point has periodically risen amid domestic confrontations involving white police officers shooting unarmed urban black men. Mr. Trump particularly has heated up the atmosphere with racial affronts and personal insults seldom heard on the national campaign trail.

For the sake of arriving at a sober and responsible choice in this extraordinarily emotional political cycle, it is imperative that the nation's voters make an uncommonly serious and adult effort to hear and sort out the proposals of the two major nominees as the election approaches.

With the Republican Party particularly in disarray as a result of the divisive nature of the outsider candidacy of Donald Trump, even the deep and widespread personal dislike of Hillary Clinton as registered in the polls ought not be sufficient rationale to turn the country over to a demonstrably unfit GOP pretender.

About 50 former Republican national security officials going back to the Nixon years have just released a letter expressing that view, and one moderate senator, Susan Collins of Maine, has joined other elected party officials saying she will not vote for him.

But for good or ill, the decision will be in the hands of all of the American people, and enough time remains for them to face up to Donald Trump's qualifications and then render a judgment commensurate with the stakes involved on Nov. 8.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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