Vice President Mike Pence and challenger Kamala Harris greeted each other at a distance at the start of their debate on Wednesday, a visual reminder that the coronavirus pandemic remains the dominant issue in the US presidential race.
— Reuters (@Reuters) October 8, 2020
The two candidates entered the stage at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, waved to the masked and socially distanced crowd before nodding towards each other and taking their seats at desks 12 feet (3.6 meters) apart.
Pence, 61, who heads the government’s coronavirus task force, will be under pressure to show he can assume the country’s highest office if Republican President Donald Trump, 74, battling COVID-19, becomes too ill to serve.
The stakes were similarly high for Harris, 55, whose running mate, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, 77, would be the oldest US president if elected on November 3.
Pence and Harris, both with presidential ambitions of their own, sat behind plexiglass shields for the uninterrupted 90-minute debate.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said in opening remarks at the debate moderated by Susan Page, USA Today Washington Bureau Chief.
In response, Pence said: “Our nation has gone through a very challenging time this year. But I want the American people to know that from the very first day President Donald Trump has put the health of America first.”
Trump announced on Friday that he had tested positive and was hospitalized for three nights before returning on Monday to a White House that has struggled to contain the disease. His doctor said on Wednesday that Trump, who continues to receive treatment, had no COVID-19 symptoms for 24 hours.
The Pence-Harris debate was unlikely to match the chaos of the first debate last week between Trump and Biden, when Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden and the two traded insults. Pence, more even-tempered than Trump, and Harris, a former prosecutor known for sharp questioning during Senate hearings, are seen as polished communicators.