But 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, began with a focus on the coronavirus pandemic but quickly panned out to encompass a broad range of policy issues, including climate change, trade, jobs, and America’s posture toward China.
While Pence, Harris and moderator Susan Page were the only ones on stage, President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden were the biggest targets of the debate.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images
Harris dropped the gloves from the outset. “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 answer, launching into a sweeping attack on the Trump administration’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis.
As the debate shifted focus toward economic issues — where Trump polls the highest — Pence offered his sharpest critiques of Biden’s policy record. When Harris slammed the Trump administration’s trade war with China, the vice president retorted: “Joe Biden never fought it.”
Less than four weeks remain until the Nov. 3 election.
Here are the highlights:
Coronavirus takes center stage
The debate kicked off with a question about the coronavirus, which has killed more than 210,000 people in the U.S. What, the moderator asked, would the Biden administration do to combat the coronavirus pandemic?
Harris highlighted the staggering death toll of the virus in the U.S., and slammed the White House for failing to act in the early days of the pandemic.
“They knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you,” she said. “They knew, and they covered it up.”
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the vice presidential campaign debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris held on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, October 7, 2020.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters
Pence defended the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis, and argued that a Biden administration would have fared no better under the same scenario.
“Our nation’s gone through a very challenging time this year, but I want the American people to know that from the very first day, President Trump has put the health of the American people first,” he said.
Pence and Harris both dodge questions about their running mates’ ages
Page asked both Pence and Harris about concerns on the ages of Trump, 74, and Biden, 77.
Neither candidate provided a direct answer.
The Trump campaign has made Biden’s age a central attack line of the election. Trump, meanwhile, was discharged 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 tore into Trump over damning reports about his attitude and actions toward the U.S. military, Pence refused to move on without completing his rebuttal – and forcing a rebuke from the moderator.
“Joe Biden would hold Russia to account,” Harris said after referencing reports that Russia offered bounties to Afghan militants to kill U.S. troops.
Page attempted to move on, but Pence insisted he be allowed to respond. When Page gave him 15 seconds, he replied, “I’ve got to have more than that.”
“The slanders against President Donald Trump regarding men and women of our armed forces are absurd,” Pence said.
Page cut in, but Pence kept talking, leading to a moment reminiscent of the interruption-fest between Trump and Biden a week earlier.
US Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the vice presidential debate in 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 the crosstalk. “I did not create the rules tonight.”
Critics pounced on Pence for steamrolling Harris and Page.
Some also said that Page could have done more to prevent Pence from speaking after his time ran out. And a few suggested that Harris should be allowed more time to compensate.
An eighth grader’s question: 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 opposing parties, trying to tear each other down. If our leaders can’t get along, how are the citizen supposed to get along?” Page read. “Your examples could make all the difference to bring us together.”
Pence offered advice to the student: “Don’t assume that what you’re seeing 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 famously close friends despite their staunchly opposing political views.
US Democratic vice presidential nominee and Senator from California, Kamala Harris speaks during the vice presidential debate in 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 up Biden’s character. “Joe has a longstanding reputation of working across the aisle,” she said. “Joe Biden has a history of lifting people up and fighting for their dignity.”
In a debate without a single jaw-dropping moment, optics gain outsize importance.
Unfortunately for the vice president, that meant viewers were acutely aware that a fly landed on his head late in the evening.
A fly briefly lands on head of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during in 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. The vice presidential candidates only meet once to debate before the general election on November 3. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Alex Wong | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Pence had been speaking about law enforcement, pushing back on 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.