SALT LAKE CITY — Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic challenger Kamala Harris clashed over the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic during their debate on Wednesday, as the White House struggled to contain an outbreak that has infected President Donald Trump and dozens of others.
The policy-heavy, relatively sedate debate stood in stark contrast to last week’s chaotic presidential showdown between Mr. Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, which was marred by Mr. Trump’s constant interruptions and personal insults from both men.
Mr. Trump’s coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) diagnosis, along with his age and that of Mr. Biden, added weight to the debate, as both Mr. Pence, 61, and Ms. Harris, 55, sought to demonstrate they were capable of assuming the office if needed. Either the Republican Mr. Trump, 74, or Mr. Biden, 77, would be the oldest U.S president to be sworn into office if victorious in November. But Wednesday’s confrontation seemed unlikely to alter the dynamics of a race that opinion polls show Mr. Biden is winning with less than four weeks to the Nov. 3 election, as both candidates evaded certain questions, stuck to talking points and avoided major gaffes.
Ms. Harris, the California U.S. senator and former state attorney general, immediately went after Mr. Trump’s record on the pandemic that has claimed 210,000 American lives and devastated the economy.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Ms. Harris said as the debate began at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
In response, Mr. Pence blamed China for the pandemic and touted the U.S. administration’s efforts to battle the disease, including Mr. Trump’s decision in late January to restrict travel from the pandemic’s epicenter in China.
“I want the American people to know that from the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of America first,” he said. “China is to blame for the coronavirus, and President Trump is not happy about it,” he added.
The two candidates were separated by 12 feet (3.6 meters) and plexiglass shields, a reminder of the virus that has led to the largest public health crisis in a century.
Ms. Harris, who made her own unsuccessful run for the presidency, faced enormous pressure as she took the biggest political stage of her life. On Wednesday, she largely succeeded at fulfilling the running mate’s traditional attack role.
Mr. Pence delivered the kind of calm, reasoned points that the combative Mr. Trump rarely offers, but the president’s propensity for grabbing headlines is likely to overshadow his second-in-command’s performance almost immediately.
Mr. Pence was questioned about the administration’s White House event last month announcing Mr. Trump’s latest Supreme Court nomination, where masks and social distancing were mostly absent. A number of prominent attendees, including the president himself, have since tested positive for COVID-19.
The vice president noted that the event was outdoors before criticizing Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden, who have promised to mandate masks on federal property and encourage the practice nationwide, for not respecting people’s freedom to make their own choices on health.
“You respect the American people when you tell them the truth,” Ms. Harris retorted, noting that Mr. Trump played down the virus for months.
Ms. Harris faulted the Trump administration for trying to invalidate the Affordable Care Act (ACA) healthcare law in the midst of a pandemic and assailing Trump for reportedly paying $750 a year in federal income taxes as president.
“When I first heard about it, I literally said, ‘You mean $750,000?’” Ms. Harris said, referring to a New York Times investigation. “And it was like, ‘No – $750.’”
She also warned that the Trump administration’s challenge to the ACA would enable insurance companies to deny coverage to patients with pre-existing conditions: “If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they’re coming for you.” — Reuters