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Harris battles Pence in sole VP debate

Senator presses VP on COVID response, refusal to denounce white supremacy

Brian Wright O’Connor
Harris battles Pence in sole VP debate

Sen. Kamala Harris hammered Vice President Mike Pence on issues ranging from White House mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic to President Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacy during a heated but largely civil debate last week between the vice presidential candidates.

The California senator, separated from the vice president by a Volkswagen-sized plexiglass shield, repeatedly attacked President Donald Trump for misleading the public about the severity of the COVID-19 crisis, blaming the administration for a death toll now surpassing over 210,000 Americans felled by the disease.

During their showdown in Utah, aired a week after a debate debacle between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, Harris called the White House response to the coronavirus “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”

By minimizing the threat of the virus and neglecting to deploy the full measures available to stem its spread, the administration failed to allow the public and the health care infrastructure to take proper precautions, leading to the U.S. suffering the highest death rate of any industrialized nation, she said.

Left unspoken was the fact that the mortality rate is highest in communities of color.

“They knew, and they covered it up,” said the former prosecutor and California attorney general, her voice calm and firm. “The president said it was a hoax. They minimized the seriousness of it.”

Pence, an ex-radio talk show host, employed the artful intonation of a seasoned straight-man in immediately deflecting the question. He accused his Democratic opponent of attacking the American people.

“When you say what the American people have done over these last eight months hasn’t worked, that’s a great disservice to the sacrifices the American people have made,” said Pence.

Broadcast with 27 days to go before the Nov. 3 election, the debate took place while President Trump tweeted from his COVID-19 recovery bed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, where he was taken after testing positive for the virus.

A second debate between Trump and Biden, slated to be held in a town hall format this week, was cancelled after the 74-year-old president refused to participate in a virtual event. The first debate devolved into a near-shouting match between the septuagenarian candidates, with the former reality TV star and real estate mogul repeatedly interrupting his 77-year-old opponent.

The heated exchanges in that debate were notable for Trump’s refusal to clearly denounce white supremacy. Invited by Fox TV moderator Chris Wallace to tell militia groups like the Proud Boys that they have no place in American society, Trump instead told them to “stand down and stand by.” The president also declined to commit to an orderly transfer of power if he loses the election.

Hospitalized just days after the debate, Trump’s illness has upped the pressure on his number two as the former Indiana governor faces a more likely prospect of having to take over the Oval Office in the event of a serious downtown in the president’s health. Harris, whose running mate would be the oldest president ever sworn into office, faces heightened scrutiny for a similar reason.

Their debate, moderated by USA Today’s Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page, featured both candidates ignoring pointed questions about their stances on controversial issues. Pence sat stony-faced, deflecting questions about white supremacy and COVID with the same studied seriousness with which he ignored a housefly repeatedly landing on his gleaming white hair, not a strand out of place in his boy’s regular cut.

For her part, Harris avoided addressing questions about whether a Biden administration would support adding justices to the nine-member Supreme Court in an effort to blunt the impact of a 6-3 conservative majority expected with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the bench this week.

The relatively cordial debate included Pence congratulating Harris on the historic nature of her nomination as the first woman of color on a major party presidential ticket. He also thanked Harris and Biden for wishing the president a full and speedy recovery.

But the candidates couldn’t be farther apart on basic issues around taxes, regulation, climate change and health care.

Pence criticized the Biden ticket for aping the Green New Deal on proposals to abolish fossil fuels and ban fracking, while Harris went after Trump on ending health care protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions. Harris also questioned why Trump, who touts his billionaire status, paid only $750 in taxes in two consecutive years. She called for further inquiries into his outstanding personal debts of over $400 million, saying the American people deserve to know more about the lenders to whom the president is obligated.

But nowhere was Harris tougher on Pence than on torching the White House for setting a divisive tone and sowing polarization on issues involving race.

“America, you deserve better,” she said, looking straight at the camera. “Joe Biden is a president who will bring us together.” 

Polls taken after the debate showed Biden leading Trump in national surveys by anywhere from eight to 12 points, with smaller leads in key battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Black voters, who overwhelmingly supported Biden in the Democratic primaries, make up important voting blocs in those states.

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