Pence and Harris spar over pandemic in debate

Pence and Harris spar over pandemic in debate
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Media captionPence and Biden clash on President Trump's record

US Vice-President Mike Pence and Democratic running mate Kamala Harris have clashed fiercely over the coronavirus pandemic in a TV debate.

Ms Harris accused President Donald Trump of "the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country".

Mr Pence said Democratic nominee Joe Biden's pandemic plan was "plagiarism" of the current White House's.

Mr Biden leads Mr Trump with 27 days to go to the vote.

This was a civil forum between two polished communicators compared to last week's presidential debating brawl between Mr Trump and Mr Biden, which degenerated into insults and name-calling.

Mr Pence did not interrupt as much as the president did last week, but when he did Ms Harris more than once interjected: "Mr Vice-President, I'm speaking, I'm speaking."

Indeed the viral moment on Wednesday that seemed to create the most buzz was a fly landing on Mr Pence's head and remaining there for over two minutes.

But there were heated exchanges, nevertheless.

What was the row over the virus?

In Wednesday night's 90-minute debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Ms Harris accused Mr Pence and the president of deliberately misleading Americans about the lethality of the disease.

"They knew, and they covered it up," she said, adding that they had "forfeited their right to re-election".

Mr Pence accused the Biden-Harris campaign of copying the White House's pandemic strategy, alluding to a blunder that ended Mr Biden's 1987 run for the presidency when he plagiarised a speech by then-British Labour leader Neil Kinnock.

Ms Harris was asked whether she would take an approved Covid-19 vaccine distributed ahead of the election.

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Media captionHarris and Pence ‘dodge questions’

The 55-year-old California senator said she would not take a vaccine touted by Mr Trump without the approval of medical professionals.

Mr Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus task force, retorted: "The fact that you continue to undermine public confidence in a vaccine if the vaccine emerges during the Trump administration I think is unconscionable."

The plexiglass barriers separating the two debaters seated 12ft (3.6m) apart was a vivid reminder of the pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans.

The president - who is himself recovering from the virus - returned to the White House on Monday evening after three nights in hospital, with his opinion poll numbers drooping.

On Wednesday he declared that catching the disease was a "blessing from God" that exposed to him to experimental treatments he vowed would become free for all Americans.

The virus has meanwhile spread through the West Wing of the White House as well as infecting figures inside the president's re-election campaign and senior Pentagon officials.

What were the other key moments?

On the question of racial justice, Mr Pence expressed shock at the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. But he added: "There is no excuse for the rioting and looting that followed."

He pointed to one of his guests in the auditorium, Flora Westbrooks, a black woman whose hair studio was destroyed during unrest in Minneapolis.

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Media captionHarris: 'If you have a pre-existing condition, they're coming for you'

"This presumption that you hear consistently from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris," the vice-president added, "that America is systemically racist that, as Joe Biden has said, law enforcement has an implicit bias against minorities, is a great insult."

Ms Harris - who was making history by becoming the first black woman to stand on a vice-presidential debate stage - said: "Last week the president of the United States took a debate stage in front of 70 million Americans and refused to condemn white supremacists.

"And it wasn't like he didn't have a chance. He didn't do it and then he doubled down and then he said when pressed, 'Stand back, stand by.'

"And this is part of a pattern of Donald Trump's."

"Not true, not true," said Mr Pence, arguing that when Ms Harris was prosecutor in San Francisco African Americans were more likely to be prosecuted for minor drug offences than whites or Latinos.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A fly on the head of Mr Pence

In other key flashpoints:

  • Ms Harris said the Trump tit-for-tat tariffs on China had caused a manufacturing recession, adding: "You lost that trade war. You lost it." Mr Pence hit back: "Lost the trade war with China? Joe Biden never fought it. Joe Biden's been a cheerleader for communist China through, over the last several decades"
  • Ms Harris assailed Mr Trump for paying $750 a year in federal income taxes as president, according to a New York Times investigation. "When I first heard about it, I literally said, 'You mean $750,000?' And it was like, 'No, $750.'"
  • Ms Harris said Mr Trump had "betrayed our friends and embraced dictators around the world". Mr Pence said Mr Trump had ordered operations that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani

What questions did they dodge?

The debate was notable for the questions that the candidates did not directly answer.

Mr Pence twice pressed Ms Harris on whether Mr Biden would expand the number of seats of the Supreme Court, which has had nine justices for a century and a half, but she spoke instead about Mr Trump's current judicial nominee.

Mr Pence - a mild mannered former Indiana governor known for his steadfast loyalty to Mr Trump - did not answer questions about whether he would want his home state of Indiana to ban abortion, or how the Trump administration would provide medical insurance for sick Americans.

Focus on the running mates has intensified given 74-year-old Mr Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis, and the fact that Mr Biden would be the oldest president ever to take office at 78.

But when asked by the debate moderator about the chances of them taking over the presidency, both candidates skirted the subject.

Mr Pence, 61, spoke about Mr Biden's handling of the 2009 swine flu outbreak, and Ms Harris - the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father - spoke of her own biography.

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