Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris attacked Vice President Mike Pence on the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus crisis in their only debate Wednesday night, a confrontation that took on heightened importance in the pandemic-rattled campaign.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Ms. Harris said in the debate, held in Salt Lake City, Utah. “They knew what was happening, and they didn’t tell you. They knew, and they covered it up.”
Ms. Harris said the issue means that “this administration has forfeited their right to reelection.”
In a much more civil debate than last week’s presidential free-for-all, Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris clashed on energy policy, taxes, abortion and the Affordable Care Act.
During a discussion of whether Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, will vote to overturn a woman’s national right to an abortion based on her Catholic faith, Mr. Pence said she deserves a fair hearing and her faith shouldn’t be a factor.
“I’m pro-life, and I don’t apologize for it,” the vice president said.
Ms. Harris countered, “I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body.”
The Democrat also refused to answer Mr. Pence’s question whether she and Mr. Biden would try to expand or “pack” the Supreme Court with more than its current nine seats. She instead noted that none of Mr. Trump’s 50 appellate court nominees are Black.
“If you want to talk about packing a court, let’s have that discussion,” she said.
Mr. Pence replied, “Your party is openly advocating adding seats to the Supreme Court. You have refused to answer the question. Joe Biden has refused to answer the question.”
In some of his strongest arguments, Mr. Pence delivered a blistering critique of Mr. Biden’s economic vision, warning the Democrat is poised to raise taxes and enact policies such as ending natural-gas fracking that would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. He said Mr. Biden’s tax-and-spend approach would be devastating for the nation as it seeks to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic.
“America, you just heard Sen. Harris tell you, on Day One Joe Biden is going to raise your taxes,” Mr. Pence said. “Joe Biden says democracy is on the ballot, make no mistake about it … the American economy, the American comeback is on the ballot.”
Ms. Harris accused Mr. Pence of peddling falsehoods, pledging that Mr. Biden would not raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 a year.
“Joe Biden will not end fracking, he has been very clear about that,” she said. “Joe Biden is the one who during the great recession, was responsible for the Recovery Act that brought America back, and now the Trump-Pence administration wants to take credit when they rode the coattails of Joe Biden’s success for the economy they had at the beginning of their term.”
Noting that Ms. Harris was one of only 10 senators to vote against the administration’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, Mr. Pence chided her, “You put your radical environmental agenda ahead of American auto workers and American jobs.”
Ms. Harris delivered her most cutting criticisms on the administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
The senator also said she wouldn’t take a vaccine if it is proclaimed safe by President Trump but would if it is guaranteed safe by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top epidemiologist.
Mr. Pence responded adamantly that Mr. Trump “has put the health of America first” from the start of the crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 210,000 Americans. He noted that Mr. Trump suspended travel from China, where the virus originated, in late January.
“Sen. Joe Biden opposed that decision,” Mr. Pence told his rival. “He said it was xenophobic and hysterical. I believe it saved hundreds of thousands of American lives.”
He chided her, “Stop playing politics with people’s lives.”
Even before Mr. Trump went into isolation with COVID-19 and the vice presidential debate stage in Salt Lake City, Utah, was outfitted with plexiglass shields, Ms. Harris and Mr. Pence were under increased scrutiny about their fitness to step into the top job. They are running with the two oldest presidential candidates in history: Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden is 77, and Mr. Trump is 74.
Mr. Trump warned before the debate that Ms. Harris would control the White House with her extreme agenda even if Mr. Biden remains healthy for a full four-year term.
“She is far further left than Crazy Bernie,” the president tweeted in reference to democratic socialist Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont. “Biden would not last a month!”
Ms. Harris tried to use the debate to attack Mr. Pence in his role as head of the White House task force on the coronavirus. She said the administration’s plan hasn’t worked and pointed to the death toll in the U.S.
“The vice president is the head of the task force and knew on Jan. 28 how serious this was,” she said.
Mr. Pence replied to the cameras, “I want all of you to know that you’ll always be in our hearts.”
He said to Ms. Harris, “When you say that what the American people have done over these past eight months hasn’t worked, it’s a great disservice to the sacrifices of the American people.”
Mr. Pence also used the issue to take a shot at Mr. Biden for “plagiarizing” the Trump plan for tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When I look at their plan that talks about advancing testing, creating new PPE and developing the vaccine, it looks a little bit like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little bit about,” he said.
Accusations of plagiarism have dogged Mr. Biden throughout his long political career and helped sink his 1988 presidential run when he ripped off a speech from the head of Britain’s Labor Party.
The president didn’t set the table well for the even-keeled Mr. Pence in the view of many White House allies. Mr. Trump drew widespread criticism in his first debate with Mr. Biden last week for an angry performance in which he interrupted his rival repeatedly and failed to outline a second-term agenda.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last weekend showed Mr. Biden with a 32-point advantage over Mr. Trump on the question of which candidate has the right temperament to be president.
Trump campaign officials were still saying Wednesday that their internal polls show much better prospects for the president.
“We’re in good shape,” campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley said on Fox Business. “Our internal polls have us leading, ahead or tied in a lot of these battleground states needed to retain the White House for another four years. The people out there are so enthusiastic. And we look forward to another victory and shocking the world again on Nov. 3.”
The president’s illness also has raised questions, still not answered by the White House, about whether Mr. Trump tested positive for infection from the coronavirus before taking the stage with Mr. Biden on Sept. 29. Since then, Mr. Trump was hospitalized for three days and nearly 20 White House staffers tested positive.
Mr. Pence tested negative Wednesday morning, as he has consistently.
Many in the Trump campaign were looking at the vice presidential debate as the best chance to reset the campaign, with less than four weeks until Election Day. The president is trailing Mr. Biden by 8 to 10 percentage points in most national public polls.
Aides said among Mr. Pence’s goals heading into the debate were to highlight the Democratic ticket’s far-left positions on taxes, health care for illegal immigrants and the costly Green New Deal energy agenda.
Mr. Pence’s guest list included the parents of slain Islamic State group hostage Kayla Mueller, an American humanitarian worker, and he attacked Mr. Biden over his record in combating terrorism while he was vice president in the Obama administration. He said earlier Wednesday, the Department of Justice had extradited and charged two men believed to have been involved in the kidnapping and killing of several Americans hostages, including Ms. Mueller in 2015.
“The reality is, when Joe Biden was vice president we had an opportunity to save Kayla Mueller,” Mr. Pence said. “It breaks my heart to reflect on it but the military came into the Oval Office, presented a plan, they said they knew where Kayla was. But when Joe Biden was vice president, they hesitated for a month and when armed forces finally went in, it was clear she had been moved two days earlier, and her family says with a heart that broke the heart of every American, that if President Donald Trump had been president, they believe Kayla would be alive today.”
Ms. Harris responded that Mr. Trump has been accused of referring to U.S. casualties as “losers,” a charge that Mr. Pence heatedly rejected.
Republicans also tried to counter the narrative that Ms. Harris is helping Mr. Biden attract more Black voters to their campaign.
“Senator Kamala Harris’ extreme positions, from raising taxes to abolishing private health insurance to comparing law enforcement officials to the KKK, show that the left-wing mob is controlling Joe Biden’s candidacy, just like they would control him as president,” said Paris Dennard, Republican National Committee senior communications adviser for Black media affairs. “These radical policies might be popular among liberals, but they are well outside the mainstream for most Black Americans.”
Part of Ms. Harris’ job Wednesday night was to criticize the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including Mr. Pence’s role as head of the White House coronavirus task force. The set of two plexiglass barriers separating the candidates, which the Democrat insisted on using, was a visual reminder of the crisis.
Advisers to Ms. Harris, a former California state attorney general, characterized Mr. Pence as a formidable debater. They said she would talk directly to voters and try to make the debate about Mr. Trump’s failed leadership during the pandemic.
The Democratic National Committee trolled the vice president in the hours leading up to the debate with a mobile billboard outside the venue in Salt Lake City, attacking him on his handling of the pandemic.
“As chair of the White House coronavirus task force, Pence owns the administration’s failed response to the pandemic more than anyone except Trump himself,” said DNC spokeswoman Lily Adams. “As cases continue to rise across the country and millions of families struggle to make ends meet, Americans are owed answers … on the administration’s failed coronavirus response.”
The vice presidential debate also was an opportunity for Mr. Pence, the conservative former governor of Indiana, to showcase his qualifications for an expected bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. His pro-life and evangelical Christian credentials are stellar, and he has earned a reputation as a tireless, disciplined campaigner.
He was also a talk radio host in Indiana for more than a decade.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are scheduled to debate again Oct. 15 in Miami, although Mr. Biden said they shouldn’t debate if Mr. Trump still has COVID-19. The final presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tennessee.
• Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.
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