Democratic challenger Kamala Harris wasted little time going after Vice President Mike Pence over the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic during their only debate on Wednesday, as the White House struggled to contain an outbreak that has infected President Donald Trump and dozens of others.
"The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country," Harris said as the debate began at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
In response, Pence defended the US administration's efforts to battle the disease, including Trump's decision in late January to restrict travel from the pandemic's epicenter in China.
"I want the American people to know that from the very first day President Donald Trump has put the health of America first," he said.
The two candidates were separated by 12 feet (3.6 meters) and plexiglass shields, a reminder of the pandemic that has claimed 210,000 American lives and devastated the economy.
Wednesday's debate, with the candidates engaging on a range of policy subjects, was a far cry from last week's chaotic presidential debate, in which Trump repeatedly interrupted Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and the two men traded personal insults in a face-off that was widely panned.
Harris went on the offensive on several fronts, attacking the Trump administration's effort to invalidate the Affordable Care Act healthcare law and assailing Trump for reportedly paying $750 a year in federal income taxes as president.
"When I first heard about it, I literally said, 'You mean $750,000?'" Harris said, referring to a New York Times investigation. "And it was like, 'No - $750.'"
Pence sought to counter her attacks by turning the focus to the economy and tax policy, saying: "On Day One, Joe Biden's going to raise your taxes."
The vice president also asserted that Biden would ban fracking and embrace the Green New Deal, a massive environmental proposal backed by liberal Democrats. Biden, however, has disavowed both of those positions.
But like the presidential campaign, the debate, moderated by USA Today journalist Susan Page, returned again and again to the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn.
READY TO ASSUME THE OFFICE
The age of the two presidential candidates - either Trump, 74, or Biden, 77, would be the oldest president in US history - added weight to the debate, with both Pence and Harris seeking to show they were capable of assuming the office. Trump's recent COVID-19 diagnosis has only made that issue more salient.
The two candidates also jockeyed for position in their respective parties; both are widely seen as future presidential candidates, whatever the outcome of November's contest.
Biden leads Trump in national opinion polls and has an advantage of 12 percentage points in the latest Reuters/Ipsos survey of likely voters. Polls show the race to be closer in some of the election battleground states that could determine the winner, although a Reuters/Ipsos poll on Wednesday showed Biden leading Trump in pivotal Florida.
Harris, who was on the biggest stage of her political career, is a US senator from California picked by Biden in August as his running mate. The daughter of immigrants - her father from Jamaica and her mother from India - Harris is the first Black woman nominated by a major party for vice president as well as the first person of Asian descent.
Pence, a former conservative radio host who debated then-Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine in 2016, is a former US congressman and Indiana governor who has steadfastly defended Trump during his tumultuous presidency.