Vice President Mike Pence struggled to get the Trump campaign back on track Wednesday in a heated but disciplined debate with Sen. Kamala Harris that contrasted sharply with the chaotic clash last week between the presidential nominees.
In the only vice presidential debate this fall, Pence staunchly defended President Trump's record and rhetoric, recasting administration failures as policy triumphs.
He characterized a disorganized and incompetent response to the pandemic as a roaring success. He suggested the nation is winning its trade war with China, when there is little evidence of that.
He denied Trump has aligned with hate groups and disparaged war heroes, despite the president’s public comments doing exactly those things.
Harris forcefully rebuked the White House for what she called its vast failures on COVID-19, taxes and climate change, while fiercely defending her record as California attorney general and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s experience as vice president.
Despite occasionally fiery exchanges and interruptions, the 90-minute face-off was civil, a reminder of how political debates mostly occurred in the pre-Trump era. But it appeared unlikely to give the president’s reelection campaign the reboot it needs to start narrowing a significant gap in the polls with the election only 27 days away.
For many viewers, the most memorable image may be the housefly that placidly perched in Pence’s hair for more than two minutes. Pence didn’t seem to notice, carrying on with his answer until it buzzed away.
As Pence tried to paint Harris and Biden as leftists out of step with mainstream America, Harris aimed her sharpest barbs at Trump’s handling of the pandemic, a critical campaign issue in a week when the president was hospitalized for three days with COVID-19, the White House became a coronavirus hot spot, and the U.S. death toll soared past 211,000.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said.
She said Trump and Pence, who headed the White House coronavirus task force, were warned in January that the virus was deadly, that it spread by air and that immediate precautions should be taken.
“They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you. They knew and they covered it up. The president said it was a hoax,” she said.
She said the Trump “administration has forfeited their right to reelection based on this.”
Pence accused the California senator of misleading voters, arguing that Trump had acted decisively when he ordered a partial ban on travel from China in February.
“That decision alone bought us valuable time to set up the greatest mobilization since World War II,” Pence said.
But the optics of the event at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City — with large plexiglass panels separating the two, a 12-foot gap between them, and members of the small audience all wearing masks — served as a dramatic reminder that the virus is far from vanquished.
The stakes were uncommonly high for a showdown between running mates. Pence and Harris were auditioning not just for the No. 2 job in the White House, but also as possible emergency replacements for the elderly men who lead their parties.
Pence could assume the powers of the presidency any day, as Trump, who is 74, battles COVID. Although he is back at the White House, the president remains contagious and his doctors warn he has not yet beaten the disease.
Biden, who is 77, picked Harris in response to voter anxiety about his advanced age and the possibility that he might serve just one term. He vowed to choose a running mate ready to be president on Day 1.
Both candidates routinely evaded or ignored questions from moderator Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today. At one point, Harris unfurled her biography, from her immigrant mother to her work as a prosecutor to becoming the second Black woman in the U.S. Senate.
The event bore little resemblance to the free-for-all last week when Trump and Biden clashed in Cleveland in their first debate.
The Biden campaign’s lead has grown since then, with major polls now putting the Democratic nominee 10 to 16 points ahead nationwide.
Pence came off as seasoned and calm, not surprising given he honed his debating skills as a conservative talk radio host in Indiana.
But he bristled when Harris declared the administration’s trade war with China a failure.
“Lost a trade war with China?” he said. “Joe Biden never fought it. Joe Biden has been a cheerleader for communist China.”
Harris shot back. “Joe Biden is responsible for saving America’s auto industry and you voted against it,” she said. “So let’s set the record straight.”
Pence often tried to steamroll the moderator when he ran out of time and ignored her questions.
Harris often let Pence overstep his time, baiting him into playing the bully. But she occasionally responded sharply when Pence tried to talk over her. “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” she admonished him twice.
As Harris worked to keep the focus on the pandemic, an area where voters are most uneasy with Trump, Pence tried to steer the conversation toward law enforcement and energy policy, accusing the Biden campaign of pursuing an agenda in tandem with the party’s hard left.
“I trust our justice system,” Pence said, as he attacked Harris for accusing law enforcement of implicit bias against minorities, and argued she did little for minorities when she was San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general or senator.
Harris took umbrage.
“I will not sit here and be lectured by the vice president on what it means to enforce the laws of our country,” she said.
“I’m the only one on this stage who has personally prosecuted everything from child sexual assault to homicide. I’m the only one on the stage who has prosecuted the big banks who were taking advantage of America’s homeowners. I’m the only one on this stage who prosecuted for-profit colleges for taking advantage of our veterans.”
Their argument on healthcare was equally heated.
“If you have a preexisting condition, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, they are coming for you,” Harris warned, as she focused on the administration’s persistent efforts to dismantle Obamacare.
“Obamacare was a disaster,” Pence responded. “The American people remember it well.”
When Pence was repeatedly asked whether he believed in climate change, he sidestepped the issue by saying he believes climate is warming, but suggesting scientists are still sorting out the cause.
The view is out of step with mainstream science, which has already determined fossil fuels are the major driver.
“They don’t believe in science,” Harris said.
She pointed to Trump’s visit to California after recent wildfires, where he denied the role of global warming. “You know what Donald Trump said? ‘Science doesn’t know.’”
The vice president repeatedly brought up fracking of natural gas, a key issue to voters in the Midwestern swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, warning that Biden and Harris are pursuing a radical green energy plan that would eventually ban it.
“I know Joe Biden says otherwise now, as you do, but the both of you repeatedly committed to abolishing fossil fuels and banning fracking,” Pence said.
Harris countered that Biden specifically vowed not to ban fracking.
Pence also sought to reframe Trump’s repeated reluctance to disavow hate groups, including at last week’s debate. The vice president cast it instead as the mainstream media taking Trump’s remarks out of context.
The Biden campaign went into the event cognizant that Harris, the first woman of color on a major party presidential ticket, would face voter biases that Pence would not.
Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, had earlier advised Harris to keep those in mind and “modulate” her responses in a way “that doesn’t scare or alienate voters.”
Throughout the evening, the senator avoided cross-talk and interruptions, even as Pence repeatedly interrupted her. She shook her head when she disagreed and broke into incredulous grins when Pence talked over the moderator or strayed from the facts.
When the debate turned to the sprint by Republicans to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before the election, Harris reprimanded the Republican Party.
“We’re literally in an election. Over 4 million people have voted,” she said. “Joe has been very clear, as the American people are — let the American people fill that seat in the White House, and then we’ll fill that seat on the Supreme Court.”
But when Pence pressed Harris on whether a Biden administration would try to “pack” the Supreme Court with liberal justices by adding to its nine seats, Harris demurred.
There are two more debates planned between Trump and Biden, though Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis has put them in limbo.
Biden said Tuesday that he was prepared to debate the president in Miami next week, but only if Trump is free of the virus by then.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.