Mike Pence defended the Trump administration’s handling of a pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans as Kamala Harris condemned “the greatest failure of any presidential administration” in Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate.
Because of the virus, the candidates were separated by plexiglass barriers in their sole vice-presidential debate, a far more civil affair than last week’s chaotic presidential face-off in which President Donald Trump constantly interrupted challenger Joe Biden.
With the virus sweeping through the highest levels of government and Mr Trump just days out of hospital after his own Covid-19 diagnosis, his deputy Mr Pence acknowledged “our nation’s gone through a very challenging time this year”.
But he added: “I want the American people to know, from the very first day, President Trump has put the health of America first.” He also promised millions of doses of a yet-to-be-announced treatment before the end of the year.
Speaking directly to the camera, as Mr Biden did in last week’s debate, Ms Harris condemned what she termed the government’s historic “failure” in reacting to the pandemic and said: “They knew what was happening, and they didn’t tell you.”
In response, Mr Pence commended Mr Trump’s decision to shut off travel from China, saying the decision “bought us invaluable time” to coordinate the country’s response to the pandemic, although Mr Trump’s move only cut off some travel from China, and tens of thousands of people were still allowed to pour into the country.
Ms Harris assailed Mr Trump’s consistent downplaying of the pandemic’s threat, insisting she would not take a vaccine if the Republican president endorsed it without the backing of medical professionals.
“Frankly this administration has forfeited their right to re-election based on this,” she said.
Less than four weeks before Election Day, Republicans hoped the debate might give the Trump-Pence ticket a final opportunity to help reset a contest that could be slipping away.
His poll numbers sagging, the president, with Mr Pence at his side, is struggling to stabilise the nation in the midst of multiple crises as more than a dozen senior officials across the White House, the Pentagon and inside his campaign have been infected by the virus he claimed would “magically disappear”.
There were heated exchanges over the environment, the Supreme Court and racism, but overall the debate was far more respectful than Trump and Biden’s first bout. Mr Pence interrupted at times, but with far less frequency than Mr Trump had.
The prime-time meeting in Salt Lake City elevated two candidates with presidential aspirations of their own who may be asked to step into the presidency even before the end of the next term. Health questions loom over Mr Trump, 74, who is recovering from the coronavirus, and 77-year-old Mr Biden, who would be the oldest US president in history.
Republicans desperately want to cast the race as a choice between two candidates fighting to move the country in vastly different directions.
But so long as the coronavirus is ravaging the White House and killing several hundred Americans each day, the election will almost certainly be a referendum on the Trump administration’s inability to control the pandemic, which Republicans have sought to downplay or ignore altogether for several months.
Mr Pence’s message on Wednesday night was undercut by the mere fact that the candidates and moderator were separated by plexiglass shields, seated more than 12 feet apart and facing a crowd of masked audience members who faced expulsion if they removed their face coverings.
When the debate turned to race, Mr Pence, 61, pushed back against the existence of systemic racism in police departments.
Ms Harris, 55, condemned the killings of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and George Floyd in Minnesota and spoke about the protests against racial injustice in policing that followed, which Mr Trump has portrayed as “riots” as he calls for law-and-order.
“We are never going to condone violence but we must always fight for the values that we hold dear,” Ms Harris said. “I’m a former career prosecutor. I know what I’m talking about. Bad cops are bad for good cops.”
Mr Pence said his heart broke for Ms Taylor’s family but he trusted the US justice system. He called it “remarkable” that Ms Harris, as a former attorney general and prosecutor, would question the grand jury’s decision in the case not to charge an officer over the killing.
The candidates also clashed on taxes – specifically, Mr Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns four years after repeatedly promising to do so. The New York Times reported last month the businessman president pays very little personal income tax but owes hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.
“It’d be really good to know who the president owes money to,” Ms Harris said.
“The one thing we know about Joe, he puts it all out there. He is honest, he is forthright. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has been about covering up everything.”
Mr Pence defended Mr Trump as a job creator who had paid more than his fair share of taxes and shifted toward Biden: “On Day One, Joe Biden’s going to raise your taxes.”