WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Vice-President Mike Pence and Democratic challenger Kamala Harris clashed early and often over the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic during their debate on Wednesday (Oct 7), as the White House struggled to contain an outbreak that has infected President Donald Trump and dozens of others.
The policy-heavy debate stood in stark contrast to last week's chaotic presidential debate between Mr Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, which was marred by Mr Trump's constant interruptions and personal insults from both men.
But the confrontation seemed unlikely to alter the trajectory of the race, as both candidates evaded certain questions but avoided the kind of gaffe that would generate headlines.
Ms Harris, fulfilling the running mate's traditional attack role, went after Mr Trump's record on healthcare and the economy to climate change and foreign policy, while Mr Pence defended the Republican administration's nearly four-year-old record.
"The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country," Ms Harris said as the debate began at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
In response, Mr Pence blamed China for the pandemic and touted the US administration's efforts to battle the disease, including Mr Trump's decision in late January to restrict travel from the pandemic's epicentre 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. "China is to blame for the coronavirus, and President Trump is not happy about it," he added.
Mr Pence was questioned about the administration's White House event last month announcing Mr Trump's latest Supreme Court nomination, where masks and social distancing were mostly absent.
A number of prominent attendees, including the President himself, have since tested positive for Covid-19. The Vice-President noted that the event was outdoors before criticising Ms Harris and Mr Biden, who have said they would mandate masks on federal property and encourage the practice nationwide, for not respecting people's freedom to make their own choices on health.
"You respect the American people when you tell them the truth," Ms Harris retorted, noting that Mr Trump played down the virus for months.
The two candidates were separated by 3.6m and plexiglass shields, a reminder of the pandemic that has claimed 210,000 American lives and devastated the economy.
Ms Harris faulted the Trump administration for trying to invalidate the Affordable Care Act (ACA) healthcare law in the midst of a pandemic and assailed Mr Trump for reportedly paying US$750 (S$1,020) a year in federal income taxes as president.
"When I first heard about it, I literally said, 'You mean US$750,000?'" she said, referring to a New York Times investigation.
"And it was like, 'No - US$750.'"
She also warned that the Trump administration's challenge to the ACA would enable insurance companies to deny coverage to patients with pre-existing conditions: "If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they're coming for you."
Mr Pence called the ACA, popularly known as Obamacare, a "disaster".
The US Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments over the law a week after the election.
Republicans are working to seat Mr Trump's conservative nominee to the court, Ms Amy Coney Barrett, by month's end over the objections of Democrats.
Mr Pence sought to counter Ms Harris' attacks by turning the focus to the economy and tax policy, saying: "On Day One, Joe Biden's going to raise your taxes."
Ms Harris responded by saying that Mr Biden has vowed not to raise taxes on anyone making less than US$400,000 a year.
The Vice-President also asserted that Mr Biden would ban fracking and embrace the Green New Deal, a massive environmental proposal backed by liberal Democrats.
Mr Biden, however, has disavowed both of those positions.
Asked about a potential vaccine, Ms Harris said she would only trust the word of scientists, rather than that of Mr Trump, who has promoted unproven treatments in the past.
"If the doctors tell us that we should take it, I'll be the first in line to take it, absolutely," she said. "But if Donald Trump tells us to take it, I'm not taking it."
Mr Pence fired back, accusing Ms Harris of undermining public confidence in vaccines. "I think it is unconscionable," he said. "Stop playing politics with people's lives."
Ms Harris, the first black woman to serve on a major-party presidential ticket, also attacked Mr Pence on race relations, criticising Mr Trump for turning down an opportunity to denounce white supremacists at last week's debate with Mr Biden.
In response, Mr Pence accused the media of taking Mr Trump's words out of context and said the President had repeatedly disavowed racist groups.
"Mike Pence WON BIG!" said Mr Trump after the debate.
But financial analysts said neither Ms Harris or Mr Pence were clear winners.
"Neither side landed a killer blow. Harris could have done more to criticise Trump's handling of the coronavirus. For Pence, it was easy for him to criticise the economic polices that Democrats favour," said Ms Ayako Sera, market strategist at Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank, Tokyo.
"If Trump really does recover from the coronavirus and is able to participate in the second presidential debate, his support could rise and the race could get close.
"For now, Biden maintains his lead. The biggest question is whether the Democrats can take the White House and both chambers of Congress. If so, there will be no policy logjam, which means higher stocks and a higher dollar."
Mr Gary Ng, an economist at Natixisin Hong Kong, said: "I think this debate didn't change things very fundamentally - of course it was a more polite debate than the previous one - but it didn't change the market's expectations in terms of the result, so there haven't been large movements.
"I think in Asia people are still taking a wait and see approach, and that there will continue to be more volatility ahead of the election date."
READY TO ASSUME THE OFFICE
The ages of the two presidential candidates - Mr Trump, 74, or Mr Biden, 77, would be the oldest president in US history - added weight to the debate, with both Mr Pence, 61, and Ms Harris, 55, seeking to show they were capable of assuming the office.
Mr 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.
Mr Biden leads Mr 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 Mr Biden leading Mr Trump in pivotal Florida.
Ms Harris, who was on the biggest stage of her political career, is a US senator from California picked by Mr Biden in August as his running mate.
The daughter of immigrants - her father from Jamaica and her mother from India - Ms Harris is the first black woman nominated by a major party for vice-president as well as the first person of Asian descent.
Mr 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 Mr Trump during his tumultuous presidency.