SALT LAKE CITY, Oct. 7 (Reuters) — 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 Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, which was marred by Trump's constant interruptions and personal insults from both men.
Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis, along with his age and that of Biden, added weight to the debate, as both Pence, 61, and Harris, 55, sought to demonstrate they were capable of assuming the office if needed. Either the Republican Trump, 74, or 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 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.
Harris, the California U.S. senator and former state attorney general, immediately went after Trump's record on the pandemic that has claimed 210,000 American lives and devastated the economy.
Watch the full debate below:
"The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country," Harris said as the debate began at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
In response, Pence blamed China for the pandemic and touted 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. "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 and plexiglass shields, a reminder of the virus that has led to the largest public health crisis in a century.
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.
Pence delivered the kind of calm, reasoned points that the combative Trump rarely offers, but the president's propensity for grabbing headlines is likely to overshadow his second-in-command's performance almost immediately.
Masks and social distancing
Pence was questioned about the administration's White House event last month announcing 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 Harris and 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," Harris retorted, noting that Trump played down the virus for months.
Harris faulted the Trump administration for trying to invalidate the Affordable Care Act 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?'" 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."
Pence called the ACA, popularly known as Obamacare, a "disaster."
The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments over the law a week after the election. Republicans are working to seat Trump's conservative nominee to the court, Amy Coney Barrett, by month's end over the objections of Democrats.
Pence sought to counter Harris's attacks by turning the focus to the economy and tax policy, saying: "On Day One, Joe Biden's going to raise your taxes." Harris responded by saying that Biden has vowed not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 a year.
The vice president also asserted that Biden would ban fracking and embrace the Green New Deal, a massive environmental proposal backed by liberal Democrats. Biden, however, has rejected both of those positions.
Asked about a potential vaccine, Harris said she would only trust the word of scientists, rather than that of Trump, who has promoted unproven treatments in the past.
"If the doctors tell us that we should take it, I'll be the first in line to take it, absolutely," she said. "But if Donald Trump tells us to take it, I'm not taking it."
Pence fired back, accusing Harris of undermining public confidence in vaccines. "I think it is unconscionable," he said. "Stop playing politics with people's lives."
Race an issue
Harris, the first Black woman to serve on a major-party presidential ticket, also attacked Pence on race relations, criticizing Trump for turning down an opportunity to denounce white supremacists at last week's debate with Biden.
In response, Pence accused the media of taking Trump's words out of context and said the president had repeatedly disavowed racist groups.
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.
Harris, who was on the biggest stage of her political career, is the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India and the first person of Asian descent on a major-party presidential ticket, as well as the first Black woman.
Pence, a former conservative radio host, is a former U.S. congressman and Indiana governor who has steadfastly defended Trump during his tumultuous presidency.
In addition to competing for November's election, the two candidates were also jockeying for long-term position in their respective parties. Both are widely seen as future presidential candidates, whatever the outcome of November's contest.
It was the only vice presidential debate of the campaign. Biden and Trump are due for a rematch on Oct. 15 and 22.
(Reporting by Michael Martina in Salt Lake City and Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Doina Chiacu, Jason Lange and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Howard Goller)