For a day, Nashville came alive again.
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden arrived in the city with a bang, taking the stage at Belmont University on Thursday night for their final face-to-face in the 2020 presidential election.
More than 70 million viewers were expected to watch the 90-minute debate in Nashville, the second time the two presidential candidates have stood side by side to discuss issues ranging from the coronavirus and the economy to immigration and racial justice.
The debate was radically different from Trump and Biden’s first exchange a few weeks ago in Cleveland, which turned out to be chaotic as the moderator struggled to maintain order. But on the Belmont stage, the contestants largely observed new rules to avoid breaking into NBC News moderator Kristen Welker required each candidate to answer follow-up questions in an organized manner.
With Trump trailing behind double digits in national polls and single digits in some key battlefield states, the election has in many ways become a referendum on how the president has handled the coronavirus crisis, while that Trump’s campaign sought to portray Biden as weak and unable to lead.
DISCUSSION TO TAKE AWAY:The mute button, the coronavirus and no cry from Nashville
The debate opened with the two candidates arguing about how far to go with the coronavirus restrictions and how soon the country could return to normal, Trump suggesting that increases in cases had subsided in parts of the country. and that the restrictions were too harsh for business. Many states, including Tennessee, are experiencing worsening epidemics and increasing hospitalizations.
“We’re in a situation where the president still doesn’t have a plan,” Biden said of Trump’s leadership surrounding the pandemic, which has claimed 220,000 lives in America. “I’ll take care of this.”
The president maintained that the United States “is passing the pandemic course.”
“We are learning to live with it,” Trump said. “We have no choice. We can’t lock ourselves in a basement like Joe does.”
The former vice president fired back.
“He says ‘we’re learning to live with it,’” Biden said. “People learn to die with it.”
It was the second time that the private Christian university has hosted a presidential debate, an event that took place with only a small audience live and under strict protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The debate in Nashville featured a mute button that was used during parts of the event, a feature never felt necessary before, but which the Presidential Debates Committee added after the devolution of the candidate exchange to Cleveland. In this first debate, viewers struggled to decipher the arguments of the two candidates as they – mainly Trump – spoke to each other.
“I think the mute button was a victory for the voters tonight,” said John Koch, debate director at Vanderbilt University. “It allowed us to get more information. It allowed us to know more about the candidates.”
It meant hearing clearer answers from Trump and Biden, despite the debate intensifying in the second half.
“A debate can still impact the margins with voters undecided,” Koch said, grateful that there are few of those left, given the current political polarization and the high anticipated turnout.
The candidates also spoke about immigration, including Trump defending his “zero tolerance” policy, which separated migrant parents from their children at the US-Mexico border. Biden pledged to propose legislation in his first 100 days in office to extend a path of citizenship to undocumented immigrants brought to the country when they were young.
The president and Biden have also fought over health care plans, as Trump pledged to create “a whole new and beautiful health care plan” if the Affordable Care Act is rescinded. He accused Biden of wanting to set up a socialized health care program.
Biden attacked Trump for still not having a health care plan, stressing the need to protect coverage for pre-existing conditions.
The former vice president pointed out that Democratic voters chose him as a candidate over other primary candidates who are more to the ideological left.
“I think he thinks he’s running against someone else,” Biden said of Trump. “He’s running against Joe Biden. I beat all these other people because I didn’t agree with them.
Crowds gathered to applaud, protest against Trump and Biden
While the crowds and activity surrounding the debate on Thursday were pale compared to the 2008 debate in Belmont, the arrival of a sitting president and a former vice president on the same day brought a wave of energy to the city Nashville hadn’t known for months. Major events have been canceled throughout the year due to coronavirus restrictions.
Police and Secret Service vehicles blocked roads through town as Trump and Biden walked into and out of the debate room, drawing crowds to street corners to watch the candidates drive through Nashville.
Trump and Biden’s arrival came the day Tennessee passed 3,000 coronavirus deaths, and as Republican Gov. Bill Lee remains in quarantine for two weeks after being exposed to the virus, which is rising in regions rural areas of the state.
Downtown, Trump’s donors gathered inside the JW Marriott Hotel, where his daughters Ivanka and Tiffany Trump could also be seen entering for a fundraiser, an event that drew celebrities like Kid Rock and Lee Greenwood, among other guests.
A crowd of spectators – including protesters and supporters – verbally argued outside the hotel as Trump entered.
Across from Belmont University, there was a similar conflict of interest.
A small group of union activists walked up Wedgewood Avenue to the Belmont campus, singing and chanting all the way.
Some of the protesters outside Belmont came from out of state. Many more took the opportunity to jump into the action in their own city, which has seen little activity since March.
Kory Winning, 22, a Belmont student from Arkansas studying history, showed up hours before the debate began.
“I am here to support my president,” Winning said. “It’s not very often that the president visits you on the street from your house.”
Across the street, Renee Kansan, 61, an unemployed pastry chef, was at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
“I am so troubled by the direction this country has taken under Trump and I think everyone has a responsibility to take a stand,” Kansan said.
Small handful of Tennessee lawmakers invited to debate
Instead of Lee, who couldn’t leave the house for the debate festivities, Trump was greeted at Nashville International Airport as he left Air Force One by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R- Crossville; Bill Hagerty, former Trump ambassador to Japan and current Republican candidate for the US Senate; and Scott Golden, president of the Tennessee Republican Party.
Sexton said he told Trump about a bill passed by the General Assembly in August to crack down on protesters outside Capitol Hill. The legislation makes it a crime to camp there.
“We talked about law and order and the crowd,” Sexton said outside the Curb Event Center in Belmont. “He said Tennessee is a great state.”
The Speaker of the House was one of many members of the state legislature in hearing Thursday, along with Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, Representative GA Hardaway, D-Memphis, the Senator Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis and Representative Gary Hicks, R-Rogersville.
Johnson said he was invited by Anheuser-Busch, who is one of the sponsors of the debate. Hicks said he was invited by a friend to Nashville, while Hardaway said he received an invitation from the Democratic National Committee.
“I really had to think about it,” Hardaway said of his decision to come watch in person rather than from his home. “Then I thought about what I would miss when these cameras cut off Trump? Is he going to lose his mind when his mic is off? I wanted to see that.”
Hardaway said he was there “representing the Black Caucus” of the Tennessee legislature.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper also attended the event, along with Metropolitan Council member Zulfat Suara. Suara tweeted that despite restricted access to the debate, she would bring her “American, Nigerian, immigrant, black, female and Muslim self” to her seat.
In an interview after the debate, she noted the unique circumstances and how without COVID-19, more people could have visited Nashville.
But Suara applauded Belmont’s handling of the event and said his biggest takeaway was Biden’s final response on how to bring a divided country together – even those who don’t vote for him.
“I know who I’m voting for… so it was nice to be able to get an affirmation,” Suara said.
Of the three universities initially selected to host the 2020 presidential debate, Belmont was the only one to have held up despite the pandemic. The University of Michigan and the University of Notre Dame earlier this summer each announced they were stepping down as hosts due to the challenges presented by the virus.
Despite hoping for the kind of crowd and energy that the Belmont campus saw when Barack Obama and John McCain came to debate in 2008, the university this time refused to plan any big festivities or throw a party. district.
Much of the events leading up to the debate took place virtually.
Everyone entering campus for the debate – including members of the media, staff and the limited public – had to show a negative result on a COVID-19 test administered by HCA. Masks were mandatory for participants at all times, including outside on campus.
Cole Villena, Yihyun Jeong, Mariah Timms, Natalie Neysa Alund and USA TODAY contributed.