Separated by plexiglass barriers, Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic challenger Kamala Harris sparred over the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic in a debate Wednesday night that highlighted the parties’ sharply conflicting visions for a nation in crisis.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris charged as Pence, who leads the president’s coronavirus task force, shook his head.
Pence acknowledged, “Our nation’s gone through a very challenging time this year.”
“I want the American people to know, from the very first day, President Trump has put the health of America first," Pence said, promising millions of doses of a yet-to-be-announced treatment before the end of the year.
The candidates debated in an auditorium where any guest who refused to wear a face mask was to be asked to leave, an extraordinary backdrop for the only vice presidential debate of 2020.
Ultimately, the prime-time meeting was a chance for voters to decide whether Pence or Harris, a U.S. senator from California, is ready to assume the duties of the presidency before the end of the next term. It’s hardly a theoretical question: President Donald Trump, 74, is recovering from the coronavirus, and 77-year-old Joe Biden has not been infected but would be the oldest president ever.
For those reasons and more, the debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City shaped up as the most meaningful vice presidential debate in recent memory. It came at a precarious moment for the Republicans as concerns grow over the spread of the coronavirus to more than a dozen senior officials across the White House, the Pentagon -- even the president and first lady Melania Trump themselves.
Trailing in several polls, Trump and Pence have no time to lose; Election Day is less than four weeks away, and millions of Americans are already casting ballots.
Before Harris said a word, she made history by becoming the first Black woman to stand on a vice presidential debate stage. The night offered her a prime opportunity to energize would-be voters who have shown only modest excitement about Biden, a lifelong politician with a mixed record on race and criminal justice, particularly in his early years in the Senate.
Harris, 55, is the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother. She is also a former prosecutor whose pointed questioning of Trump’s appointees and court nominees helped make her a Democratic star.
Pence is a 61-year-old former Indiana governor and ex-radio host, an evangelical Christian known for his folksy charm and unwavering loyalty to Trump. And while he is Trump's biggest public defender, the vice president does not share the president's brash tone or undisciplined style.
Wednesday's affair had fewer fireworks than the presidential one days ago, in which Joe Biden and Donald Trump frequently talked over one another and traded sometimes personal jabs.
Wednesday's debate covered a range of topics. On policing and escalating urban unrest over recent racially tinged episodes like the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, for instance, Harris said justice had not been served in Taylor's deatrh and the grand jury's decision not to indict any of the involved officers for her killing.
"We need reform of our policing in America and our criminal justice system," Harris said during the discussion, one of the livelier exchanges during the debate.
Pence called out Harris, a former prosecutor, for rejecting the Taylor grand jury's decision based on its review of evidence.
"With regard to George Floyd, there's no excuse for what happened George Floyd," Pence said. "Justice will be served. But there's also no excuse for the rioting and looting that followed. I mean it really is astonishing."
Another prominent topic, the issue of the election and transition of power. Trump, raising questions about the integrity of mail-in balloting, has not committed to leaving office based on the tally and outcome, and many in the GOP anticipate it will take intervention by ther Supreme Court to sort out the pandemic-tinged election this time around.
Pence, bristling at notions that there would be any resistance to honoring a fair and honest election, answered by noting that for the duration of Trump's first term, Biden and Dems have sought to overturn the vote that put him in office in the first place.
"When you talk about accepting the outcome of the election, I must tell you, your party has spent the last 3½ years trying to overturn the results of the last election," Pence said. "It's amazing when Joe Biden was vice president of the United States, the FBI actually spied on President Trump and my campaign."
But for all the other issues raised, the virus was at the forefront.
Trump released a video just three hours before the debate calling his diagnosis of a COVID infection “a blessing in disguise” because it shed light on an experimental antibody combination that he credited for his improved condition — though neither he nor his doctors have a way of knowing whether the drug had that effect.
Pence serves as chair of the president’s coronavirus task force, which has failed to implement a comprehensive national strategy even as Trump himself recovers from the disease and the national death toll surges past 210,000 with no end in sight.
The candidates appeared on stage exactly 12.25 feet (3.7 meters) apart and separated by plexiglass barriers. Both candidates released updated coronavirus test results ahead of the debate proving they were negative as of Tuesday.
Newsmax's Eric Mack contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.