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Separated by barriers, Pence and Harris debate Trump administration’s response to COVID crisis

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence on Wednesday night defended the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans, while Democratic challenger Sen. Kamala Harris condemned it as “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”

The vice-presidential debate, largely civil, was dominated by the pandemic. With Trump recovering from the virus in Washington, Harris declared she would not take a vaccine if the Republican president endorsed it without the backing of medical professionals.

The candidates were separated by plastic barriers, an extraordinary backdrop for the only vice-presidential debate of 2020.

Pence also condemned Harris’ skepticism about Trump and a possible treatment: “Senator, I ask you: Stop playing politics with peoples’ lives.”

WATCH | Harris on whether she would take a COVID-19 vaccine:

The moderator asks Kamala Harris whether she will take the COVID-19 vaccine. Her response suggests, it depends. 0:35

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 also talked up the research on vaccines, and said one would be ready soon.

Harris also referenced the five-minute video Trump released of himself earlier Wednesday about his hospitalization with COVID-19 in which he blamed the pandemic squarely on China.

The conversation included Trump’s taxes, energy policy, the environment, abortion and racial justice. At one point, Pence spoke over moderator Susan Page, a journalist with USA Today. At several points, he deflected questions and returned to others to give himself more time.

The debate 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.

The relatively sedate atmosphere allowed stark policy differences between the campaigns to come to the fore.

For example, Pence declined to say global warming was caused by human activity — the overwhelming scientific consensus — and said Biden’s proposed fixes would be too expensive.

He also inaccurately said that Biden would ban hydraulic fracturing. Biden, in fact, has said repeatedly he would not pursue a fracking ban, although he would oppose new permits for drilling on federal land. It is a key issue in battlegrounds such as western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, where the technique has led to a boom in energy production over the past decade.

Harris walks on stage for the debate with Pence. (Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

Trailing in the 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.

Harris 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.

WATCH | The National’s analysis of the vice-presidential debate:

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris faced off in the only vice-presidential debate, 12-feet apart and separated by plexiglass barriers. 7:52

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.

Harris received praise for her measured performance — including some from her running mate.

While the debate covered a range of topics, coronavirus was at the forefront.

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.

Pence was also asked for his thoughts on why Americans should be expected to follow precautionary measures to prevent COVID-19’s spread when they are not in place at White House events.

“The difference here is President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interests of their health,” Pence said.

WATCH | Pence on the lack of physical distancing at a White House event:

The moderator of the vice-presidential debate asks Vice-President Mike Pence how he can expect Americans to follow public health guidelines when the Trump administration does not. 1:49

Precautions in place

The candidates appeared on stage 3.7 metres 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.

The CDC defines risky “close contact” as being within 1.8 metres of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from two days before the onset of symptoms or a positive test.

The next presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami.

Pence arrives for the debate with Harris in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.  (Morry Gash/Pool via Reuters)

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