Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate Senator Kamala Harris and United States Vice President Mike Pence attend their 2020 Vice Presidential Campaign debate held on October 7, 2020 on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Brian Snyder | Reuters
The only debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris was calmer, clearer, and more disciplined than the angry, chaotic presidential debate a week earlier.
But despite the quieter sound – and the two sheets of Plexiglas separating the competitors – sparks flew from both sides of the stage throughout the evening.
Held in Utah in front of a small, socially distant audience, the competition started with an emphasis on the coronavirus pandemic, but quickly expanded to include a wide range of political topics, including climate change, trade, employment, and America's stance on China.
While Pence, Harris and presenter Susan Page were the only ones on stage, President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden were the biggest targets of the debate.
Harris dropped the gloves from the start. "The American people witnessed what is the greatest failure of a presidential administration in the history of our country," she said in her very first reply, launching a sweeping attack on the Trump administration's response to the Covid-19 crisis.
When the debate shifted to economic issues – where Trump conducted the highest polls – Pence Biden's political record was most critical. When Harris criticized the Trump administration's trade war with China, the Vice President replied, "Joe Biden never fought it."
There are less than four weeks until the election on November 3rd.
Here are the highlights:
Coronavirus is the focus
The debate started with a question about the coronavirus, which has killed more than 210,000 people in the United States. What would the Biden government do to fight the coronavirus pandemic?
Highlighting the staggering death toll from the virus in the U.S., Harris slammed the White House for failing to act in the early days of the pandemic.
"They knew what was going on and they didn't tell you," she said. "They knew and they covered it up."
Pence defended the Trump administration's handling of the crisis, arguing that a Biden administration would not have been better off under the same scenario.
"Our nation has had a very challenging time this year, but I want the American people to know from day one that President Trump has put the health of the American people first," he said.
Pence and Harris dodged questions about the age of their run mates
Page asked both Pence and Harris about age concerns of Trump, 74, and Biden, 77.
None of the candidates gave a straight answer.
The Trump campaign has made Biden's age a central line of attack in the election. Trump, meanwhile, was released from the hospital to debate just two days before Pence and Harris, and he is currently under treatment at the White House for the coronavirus.
Echoes of the Trump-Biden debate
When Harris attacked Trump over damned reports of his stance and behavior towards the U.S. military, Pence refused to proceed without finalizing his rebuttal – and forced a reprimand from the moderator.
"Joe Biden would hold Russia accountable," Harris said after citing reports that Russia offered Afghan militants bounties to kill US troops.
Page tried to continue, but Pence insisted he answer. When Page gave him 15 seconds, Pence replied, "I must have more than that."
"The slander against President Donald Trump about the men and women of our armed forces is absurd," said Pence.
Page cut in, but Pence kept talking, leading to a moment reminiscent of the Trump-Biden break a week earlier.
"You had more time than before," Page said amid the crosstalk. "I didn't make any rules tonight."
Critics pounced on Pence for dampening Harris and Page.
Some also said that Page could have done more to keep Pence from speaking when his time was up. And some suggested that Harris should be given more time to equalize.
An eighth grader question: If you can't get along, how can we?
Page asked the vice-presidential candidate the last question of the night asked by an eighth grader from Springville, Utah.
"When I watch the news, I see only two candidates from opposing parties trying to tear each other down. If our leaders can't get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along?" Page read. "Your examples could make all the difference in bringing us together."
Advice to the student, Pence, said, "Don't assume that what you see on your local news networks is synonymous with the American people." He set the example of the late Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, who, despite their decidedly opposing political views, were known to be close friends.
Harris took the opportunity to discuss Biden's character. "Joe has a longstanding reputation for working across the aisle," she said. "Joe Biden has lifted people up and fought for their dignity in the past."
In a debate without a single breathtaking moment, optics become more important.
Unfortunately for the Vice President, this meant that the audience knew full well that a fly landed on his head late in the evening.
A fly briefly lands on the head of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during the Vice Presidential Debate against Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The vice presidential candidates meet only once to debate before the November 3rd parliamentary elections. (Photo by Alex Wong / Getty Images)
Alex Wong | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Pence had spoken about law enforcement and pushed aside the idea of implicit bias in policing as a "great insult" to officers.
But at least on social media, the audience was instantly distracted from the visiting insect.