A week after the fiery stand-off between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, vice-presidential nominees Mike Pence and Kamala Harris took to the stage on Wednesday evening for a more sedate debate.
Mr Pence attempted to change the narrative following Mr Trump’s widely-criticised debate performance last week and the president’s recent hospitalisation with coronavirus.
Ms Harris pushed back against the Trump campaign’s narrative that she is a radical influence on Mr Biden who will push him to enact a “far-left” agenda if he is elected president.
Here are the five key takeaways from their first and only debate.
The president and the pandemic
The fiercest exchanges were over the Trump administration’s handling of coronavirus. Ms Harris accused Mr Trump of presiding over “the greatest failure” in US presidential history and lying to the American people about the severity of the virus.
“They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you,” Ms Harris said, speaking directly into the camera. “They knew and they covered it up.”
Mr Pence defended the administration’s record on handling the virus, heralding the president’s decision to shut down travel from China and insisting that medical experts had said that the death of more than 200,000 Americans from the disease was all but inevitable.
Both candidates danced around the issue of the personal health of the president. Ms Harris declined to go for the jugular against Mr Trump or to attack safety measures in the White House, where multiple officials have been infected.
The artful dodgers
The debate was notable for the extent to which the candidates avoided answering the questions.
Both candidates dodged a question about the fact that they would have to assume the presidency if either Mr Trump or Mr Biden were to die in office.
The issue has become particularly resonant given the recent hospitalisation of 74-year-old Mr Trump and the fact that Mr Biden is 77. Upon his swearing in 2017, Mr Trump was the oldest president inaugurated, while Mr Biden has described his potential presidency as a “bridge” to the next generation.
Mr Pence also deflected a question about the safety of a Rose Garden ceremony to celebrate the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, after which several attendees tested positive for Covid-19. He said that officials had followed medical experts’ guidelines by holding the event outdoors, but neglected to address the fact that there was an indoor gathering as well.
Ms Harris repeatedly refused to say whether a Biden-Harris administration would try to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court to offset its conservative tilt — a question that Mr Biden also avoided at last week’s debate.
While Mr Pence and Ms Harris might have avoided the questions, they also avoided the ugly spectacle that unfolded between Mr Trump and Mr Biden last week, with both candidates adopting a calmer tone than their running mates.
There were far fewer interruptions on Wednesday night, and neither the vice-president nor his Democratic challenger raised their voices or resorted to name-calling. In sharp contrast to the previous debate, the candidates often let silences linger.
At the same time, the candidates did not hesitate to express their disregard for each other. Mr Pence did interrupt Ms Harris on several occasions and often spoke beyond his allotted time, earning a rebuke from moderator Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief at USA Today.
Ms Harris made her disdain for Mr Pence clear via her facial expressions, often raising her eyebrows or smiling in disbelief while her opponent was talking.
She tried to “claim back [her] time” when Mr Pence interrupted her. “If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can then have a conversation — OK?” she said at one point.
Law enforcement and race
One of the notable clashes between Mr Pence and Ms Harris was on the issue of law enforcement and race.
Ms Harris repeatedly referred to her experience as California attorney-general and a San Francisco prosecutor as proof that she understood US law enforcement, but also the implicit bias that hurts people of colour.
Mr Pence rejected the idea that the US was “systemically racist”, describing the notion as “a great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement”.
His Democratic opponent detailed the policies that a Biden administration would adopt to reform the criminal justice system, including banning chokeholds, creating a national registry for police officers who had broken the law, and decriminalising marijuana.
The fly- by
In a closely fought debate where neither candidate delivered a knockout blow or made a campaign-defining gaffe, the evening might well be remembered for the appearance of an uninvited guest: a fly that landed on Mr Pence’s head during the final hour of the debate and clung on for a full two minutes.
“Pitch in $5 to help this debate fly,” Mr Biden tweeted following the debate. Shortly after, his campaign store started selling a fly swatter with the tagline “truth over flies”.
Republican senator Rand Paul joked that the fly was a “bug” planted by the “deep state” to spy on the Trump administration. It was a moment of levity in an otherwise sombre affair. /Financial Times