Democratic challenger Kamala Harris said, “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” as the debate began, with the two candidates separated by 12 feet (3.6 meters) and plexiglass shields on a stage at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City
Harris aggressively challenged Vice President Mike Pence for the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic during their only debate on Wednesday, as the White House struggles to contain an outbreak that has infected President Donald Trump and dozens of others.
In response, Pence defended the U.S. administration’s efforts to battle the disease, including 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.
Pence offered praise for the American people, arguing that Harris was discounting the sacrifices they had made.
“The American people have had to sacrifice far too much because of the incompetence of this administration,” Harris retorted. The outbreak has killed more than 210,000 Americans and battered the U.S. economy.
Pence, 61, who heads the government’s coronavirus task force, was under pressure to show he can assume the country’s highest office if Trump, 74, battling COVID-19, becomes too ill to serve.
The stakes were similarly high for Harris, 55, whose running mate, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, 77, would be the oldest U.S. president if elected on Nov. 3.
The two candidates were also jockeying for position in their respective parties; both are widely seen as future presidential candidates, whatever the outcome of November’s contest.
Trump announced on Friday that he had tested positive and was hospitalized for three nights before returning on Monday to a White House that has struggled to contain the disease. His doctor said on Wednesday that Trump, who continues to receive treatment, had no COVID-19 symptoms for 24 hours.
The start of the Pence-Harris debate was nothing like the chaos of the first debate last week between Trump and Biden, when Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden and the two traded insults. Pence, more even-tempered than Trump, and Harris, a former prosecutor known for sharp questioning during Senate hearings, are seen as polished communicators.
Biden leads Trump in national opinion polls and has an advantage of 12 percentage points in the latest Reuters/Ipsos survey of likely voters. Polls show the race to be closer in some of the election battleground states that could determine the winner, although a Reuters/Ipsos poll on Wednesday showed Biden leading Trump in pivotal Florida.
A Biden campaign official said Harris was prepared for Pence to attack her as too liberal, echoing Trump’s assertion that the moderate Biden would advance a “radical left-wing” agenda if elected president, a charge Biden disputes.
The two campaigns squabbled over installing barriers on stage between Pence and Harris to guard against coronavirus infection.
Harris had requested plexiglass shielding. Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller on Monday mocked Harris, saying if she “wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it.” Harris spokeswoman Sabrina Singh struck back, saying Pence’s response “tells you everything you need to know about why their COVID response is a failure.”
An aide to the vice president on Wednesday said Pence had agreed to the barriers to facilitate the debate.
Both Pence and Harris tested negative for the coronavirus on Tuesday. U.S. government guidelines call for anyone exposed to a person with COVID-19 to quarantine for 14 days regardless of test results.
Biden and Harris have made Trump’s handling of the public health crisis a central theme of their campaign, assailing Trump for playing down the health risks and failing to endorse mask-wearing to battle the spread of infection.