By STEVE PEOPLES, KATHLEEN RONAYNE, MICHELLE L. PRICE and JILL COLVIN
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris sparred vigorously over the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic that has killed more than 210 thousand Americans Wednesday night, Pence defending President Donald Trump’s efforts while his Democratic challenger condemned them as “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”
Harris also declared she would not take a vaccine if Trump endorsed it without the backing of medical professionals.
Pence, who leads the president’s coronavirus task force, acknowledged that “our nation’s gone through a very challenging time this year.”
But he added, “I want the American people to know, from the very first day, President Trump has put the health of America first,” Pence said, promising millions of doses of a yet-to-be-announced treatment before the end of the year.
He also condemned Harris’ skepticism of Trump’s bragging about vaccines-to-be: “Senator, I ask you: Stop playing politics with peoples’ lives.”
There were heated exchanges early on, but overall it was a far more respectful affair than the opening presidential debate eight days earlier. While Trump was the aggressor then, butting in and almost yelling, Pence demonstrated the discipline and Midwestern folksy style he is known for.
The candidates debated in an auditorium where any guest who refused to wear a face mask was to be asked to leave, an extraordinary backdrop for the only vice presidential debate of 2020.
Ultimately, the prime-time meeting was a chance for voters to decide whether Pence or Harris, a U.S. senator from California, is ready to assume the duties of the presidency before the end of the next term. It’s hardly a theoretical question: President Donald Trump, 74, is recovering from the coronavirus, and 77-year-old Joe Biden has not been infected but would be the oldest president ever.
For those reasons and more, the debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City shaped up as the most meaningful vice presidential debate in recent memory. It came at a precarious moment for the Republicans in particular, with growing concern that Trump’s position is weakening as more than a dozen senior officials across the White House, the Pentagon and inside his campaign are infected with the virus or in quarantine.
Trailing in polls, Trump and Pence have no time to lose; Election Day is less than four weeks away, and millions of Americans are already casting ballots.
Before 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 Biden, a lifelong politician with a mixed record on race and criminal justice, particularly in his early years in the Senate.
Harris, 55, is the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother. She is also a former prosecutor whose pointed questioning of Trump’s appointees and court nominees helped make her a Democratic star.
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 Trump. And while he is Trump’s biggest public defender, the vice president does not share the president’s brash tone or undisciplined style.
The candidates also clashed on taxes — or specifically, Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns four years after repeatedly promising to do so. The New York Times reported last month that the president pays very little personal income tax but owes hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.
“It’d be really good to know who the president owes money to,” Harris said.
“The one thing we know about Joe, he puts it all out there. He is honest, he is forthright,” she added. “Donald Trump, on the other hand, has been about covering up everything.”
Pence defended Trump as a job creator who has paid more than his fair share of taxes and shifted toward Biden: “On Day One, Joe Biden’s going to raise your taxes.”
While the debate covered a range of topics, the virus was at the forefront.
Trump released a video just three hours before the debate calling his diagnosis “a blessing in disguise” because it shed light on an experimental antibody combination that he credited for his improved condition — though neither he nor his doctors have a way of knowing whether the drug had that effect.
Pence serves as chair of the president’s coronavirus task force, which has failed to implement a comprehensive national strategy even as Trump himself recovers from the disease and the national death toll surges past 210,000 with no end in sight.
The candidates appeared on stage exactly 12.25 feet (3.7 meters) apart and separated by plexiglass barriers. Both candidates released updated coronavirus test results ahead of the debate proving they were negative as of Tuesday.
Critics suggested that Pence should not be at the debate at all.
The vice president attended an event last week at the White House with Trump and others who have since tested positive, but Pence’s staff and doctors insist he does not need to quarantine under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Peoples reported from New York. Colvin reported from Washington.