Vice Presidential Debate Highlights: Pence vs. Harris Recap


The one and only debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris was calmer, clearer and more disciplined than the resentful and chaotic presidential debate a week earlier.

Despite the calmer tone — and the two sheets of plexiglass separating the contenders — sparks flew from both sides of the stage with no less frequency throughout the evening.

The contest, held in Utah before a small, socially distanced audience, started out focusing on the coronavirus pandemic but quickly expanded to encompass a wide range of issues including climate change, trade, employment and America’s position towards China.

While Pence, Harris and moderator Susan Page were the only ones on stage, President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden were the main targets of the debate.

Kamala Harris, Democratic United States Vice Presidential nominee and Senator from California, speaks during the Vice Presidential Debate at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

Harris dropped the gloves from the start. “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” she said in her very first response, launching a sweeping attack on the management by the Trump administration of the Covid-19 crisis.

As the debate focused on economic issues — where Trump questions the highest — Pence offered his harshest criticisms of Biden’s political record. When Harris criticized the Trump administration’s trade war with China, the vice president retorted, “Joe Biden never fought it.”

There are less than four weeks left before the November 3 elections.

Here are the highlights:

Coronavirus takes center stage

The debate opened with a question about the coronavirus, which has killed more than 210,000 people in the United States. What, the moderator asked, would the Biden administration do to combat the coronavirus pandemic?

Harris pointed to the staggering death toll from the virus in the United States and criticized the White House for failing to act at the start of the pandemic.

“They knew what was going on and they didn’t tell you,” she said. “They knew, and they covered it up.”

US Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the Vice Presidential Campaign Debate with Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate Senator Kamala Harris held on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City, Utah on October 7, 2020.

Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

Pence defended the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis and argued that a Biden administration would not have fared better under the same scenario.

“Our nation has been through a very difficult time this year, but I want the American people to know that from day one, President Trump put the health of the American people first,” he said.

Both Pence and Harris avoid questions about their running mates’ ages

Page asked both Pence and Harris about age concerns for Trump, 74, and Biden, 77.

Neither candidate provided a straight answer.

The Trump campaign has made Biden’s age a central line of attack in the election. Trump, meanwhile, was released from a hospital just two days before Pence and Harris sat down to debate, and he is currently being treated for the coronavirus at the White House.

Echoes of the Trump-Biden debate

When Harris ripped Trump over damning reports of his attitude and actions toward the U.S. military, Pence refused to move on without finishing his rebuttal — and forcing a reprimand from the moderator.

“Joe Biden would hold Russia to account,” Harris said after referring to reports that Russia offered bounties to Afghan militants to kill US troops.

Page attempted to move on, but Pence insisted he be allowed to respond. When Page gave him 15 seconds, he replied, “I must have more than that.”

“The slander against President Donald Trump regarding the men and women of our armed forces is absurd,” Pence said.

Page cut off, but Pence kept talking, leading to a moment reminiscent of the hiatus fest between Trump and Biden a week earlier.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the Vice Presidential Debate at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Eric Baradat | Getty Images

“You’ve had more time than she’s had so far,” Page said amid crosstalk. “I didn’t make the rules tonight.”

Critics pounced on Pence for crushing Harris and Page.

Some also said Page could have done more to stop Pence from speaking after his time was up. And a few have suggested that Harris should be given more time to compensate.

Question from an eighth grader: If you can’t get along, how can we?

Page asked the vice presidential candidates the last question of the night submitted by an eighth grader from Springville, Utah.

“When I watch the news, all I see are two candidates from opposite parties, trying to kill each other. If our leaders can’t get along, how is the citizen supposed to get along?” Page read. “Your examples could make all the difference in bringing us closer together.”

Pence advised the student: “Don’t assume that what you see on your local news networks is synonymous with the American people. He gave the example of the late Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, who were famous close friends despite their fiercely opposing political views.

Kamala Harris, Democratic United States Vice Presidential nominee and Senator from California, speaks during the Vice Presidential Debate at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Eric Baradat | AFP | Getty Images

Harris took the opportunity to talk about Biden’s character. “Joe has a reputation for working across the aisle,” she said. “Joe Biden is used to uplifting people and fighting for their dignity.”

The buzz

In a debate without a single breathtaking moment, the optics take on disproportionate importance.

Unfortunately for the VP, that meant viewers were acutely aware that a fly had landed on his head late that evening.

A fly briefly lands on the head of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during the vice presidential debate against Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Alex Wang | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Pence had spoken about law enforcement, dismissing the notion of implicit bias in policing as “a great insult” to officers.

But at least on social media, audiences were instantly distracted by the visiting insect.


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