SALT LAKE CITY, Oct 8: 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 that, “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 in particular, with growing concern that Trump’s position is weakening as more than a dozen senior officials across the White House, the Pentagon and inside his campaign are infected with the virus or in quarantine.
Trailing in 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.
Just eight days ago, Trump set the tone for the opening presidential debate, which was perhaps the ugliest in modern history. Wednesday’s affair was far more respectful.
While the debate covered a range of topics, the virus was at the forefront.
Trump released a video just three hours before the debate calling his diagnosis “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.