By Tarini Parti in Washington and Andrew Restuccia in Salt Lake City
Sen. Kamala Harris sought to make the election a referendum on the administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic in a debate Wednesday that took on new importance following President Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis, while Vice President Mike Pence said the Democratic presidential ticket's policies on a range of issues were too liberal for the country and would damage the economy.
Over the course of a sometimes-testy 90 minutes between the two candidates, Mr. Pence defended the president's response to the coronavirus and touted the economy and trade deals under Mr. Trump's leadership on the debate stage Wednesday at the University of Utah.
Ms. Harris tried to hold the Trump administration responsible for failing to stem the spread of the virus, criticizing Mr. Pence, who leads the White House's task force on the coronavirus, for the climbing death toll.
"The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country," Ms. Harris said at the start of the 90-minute debate Wednesday, which also covered the environment and the duties of the vice president.
Ms. Harris continued on the pandemic, "They knew and they covered it up, " Ms. Harris said. "The president said it was a hoax. They minimized the seriousness of it," adding that Mr. Trump has "forfeited his right to reelection" as a result of his handling of the pandemic.
The vice president responded: "I want the American people to know that from the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of the American people first."
Mr. Pence added that the administration had already implemented some of the plans Mr. Biden's campaign has proposed to tackle the virus. "When I look at their plan that talks about advancing testing, creating new [personal protective equipment], developing a vaccine, it looks a little bit like plagiarism," he said.
The early portion of the event had fewer fireworks than the recent presidential debate. The candidates, who were sitting at desks instead of standing, interrupted each other less often and their tones were more measured in comparison.
But there was still tension between the candidates. "Mr. Vice President I'm speaking, I'm speaking," Ms. Harris said at one point. Mr. Pence similarly urged Ms. Harris to let him speak when she interrupted.
An audience of roughly 90 people watched the debate from the University of Utah's Kingsbury Hall.
The coronavirus pandemic loomed large as a theme throughout the debate.
The vice president defended the White House's decision to host a Rose Garden ceremony for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett late last month. Several attendees have since contracted the coronavirus.
"President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health," he said.
Ms. Harris said she would only take a Covid-19 vaccine approved under the Trump administration if the government's public health experts vouched for it. "If Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I'm not taking it," she said. The vice president urged Ms. Harris not to raise doubts about the safety of a vaccine. "Stop playing politics with people's lives," he said.
Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris, a California Democrat, were separated by plexiglass and sat 12 feet apart during the event, a reminder of the coronavirus pandemic that continues to spread across the country and through the halls of the White House. Debate attendees received mandatory coronavirus tests ahead of the event, donning a green wristband to signify that they had tested negative. They also were required to wear masks.
The president's illness revived concerns about the advanced age of both Mr. Trump, 74, the oldest man to assume the presidency, and the Democratic nominee Joe Biden, 77, who would take that mantle if he is elected. If the president becomes unable to perform his duties, power can be transferred to the vice president, who is first in the line of succession.
Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris didn't answer a question about whether they have spoken to their running mates about possible safeguards and procedures in the event that thy become incapacitated and can no longer lead the country.
Later, Mr. Pence didn't answer a question about how the Trump administration would protect pre-existing conditions if the Affordable Care Act is struck down by the Supreme Court. The Obama-era health law requires that insurers cover people with pre-existing conditions. But the administration is supporting a Republican-led lawsuit that could invalidate the health law.
The vice president pressed Ms. Harris on whether Mr. Biden would push to add more justices to the Supreme Court if he's elected. Ms. Harris didn't directly say whether Mr. Biden would endorse that proposal, which some Democrats have advocated for if Judge Barrett is confirmed to the high court. Mr. Biden refused to answer a similar question in the first presidential debate.
Wednesday's event comes after a chaotic first presidential debate in which Mr. Trump repeatedly interrupted Mr. Biden and both men lobbed insults.
The vice president repeatedly defended the president in his responses, reiterating Mr. Trump's response to a report in the New York Times that stated the president paid $750 a year in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017. "The President said those public reports are not accurate," he said when Ms. Harris brought it up as an example of the lack of transparency from the administration. Mr. Trump hasn't released his tax returns.
She also stressed that the reporting found that the president's businesses were in debt. "It'd be really good to know who the president of the United States, the commander in chief, owes money to because the American people have a right to know what is influencing the president's decisions," Ms. Harris said.
Mr. Pence pledged that 2021 would be "the biggest economic year in the history of this country," and accused Mr. Biden of planning to undo the economic achievements of the Trump administration by raising taxes. "The American economy, the American comeback is on the ballot," the vice president said. Ms. Harris countered that Mr. Biden wouldn't raise taxes for anyone making under $400,000 a year, and she said the president is taking credit for the economic recovery started during the Obama administration, when Mr. Biden was vice president.
Mr. Trump earns his highest marks from voters on the economy, even as his approval ratings have declined against the backdrop of the virus. Mr. Biden has pointed to the economic disruption caused by the pandemic in a bid to undercut the president's standing and touted his own plans to revitalize the economy.
The vice president brought up Ms. Harris's comment from the Democratic primary that she would ban fracking as evidence that a potential Biden administration would cost jobs in the heartland.
Although Ms. Harris called for the ban during a forum last year and co-sponsored the Green New Deal in the Senate, the plan her presidential campaign released didn't include such a ban, just more disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking. Ms. Harris is now backing Mr. Biden's plan to address climate change that includes a banning on fracking only on federal lands. "First of all, I will repeat, and the American people know, that Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact," Ms. Harris said.
Ms. Harris painted the president's trade policy as a failure. "You lost that trade war -- you lost it," she said. Mr. Pence shot back: "Lost the trade war with China? Joe Biden never fought it."
Mr. Trump has charted a more confrontational China policy than his predecessors. Advisers to Mr. Biden say they share the Trump administration's assessment of China as an authoritarian rival intent on disrupting the American-led global order. But he is also expected to pursue diplomacy.
Ms. Harris broke with most Democrats and opposed Mr. Trump's renegotiated trade agreement with Canada and Mexico because she didn't view it as aggressive enough on climate change.
Mr. Trump returned to the White House on Monday after spending several days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center over his Covid-19 diagnosis. He has since tried to project confidence, even as his doctors have said he isn't yet out of the woods and Mr. Trump continues to receive treatment for his illness. The president's physician said earlier Wednesday that Mr. Trump had gone 24 hours without any coronavirus symptoms.
More than a dozen administration officials and others close to the president have tested positive for the virus and several more have been forced to quarantine. Senior White House adviser Stephen Miller was the latest to test positive for coronavirus on Tuesday.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Sunday found that Mr. Biden leads the president, 53% to 39%, among registered voters. The poll, which was conducted after the first debate but before Mr. Trump's diagnosis, shows Mr. Biden expanding his lead with women voters and the president losing support among white, working-class voters and other groups. Several surveys of states Mr. Trump won in 2016, including Pennsylvania, in recent days also show Mr. Biden widening his margin.
That backdrop has raised the stakes for a vice presidential debate that in most election years would be considered a forgettable political event. The meeting was historic because Ms. Harris is the first Black woman and person of Indian descent to be a major party's vice presidential nominee.
Although two more debates between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are scheduled, it remains unclear if they will take place. The president said Tuesday he wants to participate in a second debate against Mr. Biden scheduled for Oct. 15, which would be two weeks after the president first tested positive.
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