People watch the debate between U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris at a tavern in San Diego, California, October, 7, 2020.
Mike Blake | Reuters
The one and only debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris was quieter, clearer and more disciplined than the resentful, chaotic presidential debate a week earlier.
But despite the calmer tone — and the two sheets of plexiglass separating the contenders — sparks flew from both sides of the stage with no less frequency throughout the evening.
The contest, held in Utah before a small, socially distanced audience, began with a focus on the coronavirus pandemic but quickly panned out to encompass a broad range of policy issues, including climate change, trade, jobs and America’s posture toward China.
While Pence, Harris and moderator Susan Page were the only ones on stage, President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden were the biggest targets of the debate.
Harris dropped the gloves from the outset. “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” she said in her very first answer, launching into a sweeping attack on the Trump administration’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis.
As the debate shifted focus toward economic issues — where Trump polls the highest — Pence offered his sharpest critiques of Biden’s policy record. When Harris slammed that the Trump administration’s trade war with China, the vice president retorted: “Joe Biden never fought it.”
Less than four weeks remain until the Nov. 3 election.
Here are the highlights:
Coronavirus takes center stage
The debate kicked off with a question about the coronavirus, which has killed more than 210,000 people in the U.S. What, the moderator asked, would the Biden administration do to combat the coronavirus pandemic?
Harris highlighted the staggering death toll of the virus in the U.S., and slammed the White House for failing to act in the early days of the pandemic.
“They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you,” she said. “They knew, and they covered it up.”
Pence defended the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis, and argued that a Biden administration would have fared no better under the same scenario.
“Our nation’s gone through a very challenging time this year, but I want the American people to know that from the very first day, President Trump has put the health of the American people first,” he said.
Pence and Harris both dodge questions about their running mates’ ages
Page asked both Pence and Harris about concerns about the ages of Trump, 74, and Biden, 77.
Neither candidate provided a direct answer.
The Trump campaign has made Biden’s age a central attack line of the election. Trump, meanwhile, was discharged from the hospital just two days before Pence and Harris sat down to debate, and he is currently being treated for the coronavirus at the White House.
Echoes of the Trump-Biden debate
When Harris tore into Trump over damning reports about his attitude and actions toward the U.S. military, Pence refused to move on without completing his rebuttal – and forcing a rebuke from the moderator.
“Joe Biden would hold Russia to account,” Harris said after referencing reports that Russia offered bounties to Afghan militants to kill U.S. troops.
Page attempted to move on, but Pence insisted he be allowed to respond. When Page gave him 15 seconds, Pence replied, “I’ve got to have more than that.”
“The slanders against President Donald Trump regarding men and women of our armed forces are absurd,” Pence said.
Page cut in, but Pence kept talking, leading to a moment reminiscent of the interruption-fest between Trump and Biden a week earlier.
“You’ve had more time than she’s had so far” Page said amid the crosstalk. “I did not create the rules tonight.”
Critics pounced on Pence for steamrolling Harris and Page.
Some also said that Page could have done more to prevent Pence from speaking after his time ran out. And a few suggested that Harris should be allowed more time to compensate.