Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Kamala Harris began their vice presidential debate by sparring over the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus, a point that highlighted the parties’ sharply conflicting visions for a nation in crisis.
In the only vice presidential debate before next month’s election, the two candidates traded blows from behind plexiglass barriers in a university auditorium in Utah, after a stipulation that any guest who refused to wear a face mask would be removed.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Ms Harris said as Mr Pence, who leads the president’s coronavirus task force, shook his head.
Mr 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,” Mr Pence said, promising millions of doses of a yet-to-be-announced treatment before the end of the year.
Wednesday’s prime-time meeting was a chance for voters to decide whether Mr Pence or Ms Harris would be ready to assume the duties of the presidency – hardly a theoretical question given President Donald Trump is 74 and recovering from the coronavirus, and Democratic candidate Joe Biden is 77.
Speaking directly to the camera, as Mr Biden did in his chaotic first debate with Mr Trump, Ms Harris said of the government: “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.
More than 210,000 Americans have died during the pandemic. Mr Trump is recovering at the White House from his own infection.
Trailing in polls, Mr Trump and Mr Pence have no time to lose. Election Day is less than four weeks away, and millions of Americans are already casting ballots.
Before Ms 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 Mr Biden, a lifelong politician with a mixed record on race and criminal justice, particularly in his early years in the Senate.
Ms Harris, 55, is the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother. She is also a former prosecutor whose pointed questioning of Mr Trump’s appointees and court nominees helped make her a Democratic star.
Mr 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 Mr Trump. And while he is Mr Trump’s biggest public defender, the vice president does not share the president’s brash tone or undisciplined style.