The optics of the vice presidential debate held in Utah on Wednesday between Democratic nominee Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence were starkly different than the first presidential one last week. The meeting was civil and policy-focused but is unlikely to alter the shape of the race.
Senator Harris, the first black and South Asian vice presidential nominee in history, tied Mr Pence’s record to Donald Trump, blasting the response to the coronavirus pandemic that has so far killed more than 210,000 people in the United States.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” she said.
The vice president tried to deflect defending the Trump team’s response by saying the president suspended travel from China. “President Donald Trump did what no other American president had ever done," he said. "And that was, he suspended all travel from China, the second-largest economy in the world."
But his defence was not convincing as cases continue to climb in the US and are now inside the White House, Congress and the Pentagon. Mr Trump and more than 20 of his staff have contracted the virus.
Wednesday’s debate showed civility and decorum, especially when compared with the chaotic presidential one last Tuesday. Except for a few interruptions from Mr Pence to which Ms Harris responded, “I am speaking”, the discussion was respectful and civil. It, however, exposed big disagreements between the candidates on both domestic and foreign policy issues.
“I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body,” Ms Harris said on the issue of abortion while Mr Pence asserted his view on the “sanctity of life”.
On climate change, Ms Harris promised a return to the Paris Climate Accords that the Trump administration left in 2017. The differences were also around tax policy, supreme court nominations, racial justice and health care.
“If you have a pre-existing condition, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, they [Trump administration] are coming for you,” Ms Harris said in her sharpest attack on Mr Pence. “If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage, they’re coming for you.”
Mr Pence went on the offensive over foreign policy and the case of the former US hostage in Syria Kayla Mueller, whose parents were in the audience and are supporting Mr Trump.
“The reality is that when Joe Biden was vice president, we had an opportunity to save Kayla Mueller, it breaks my heart to reflect on it, but the military came into the Oval Office and presented a plan. They said they knew where Kayla was.”
But, he claimed, the Obama administration refused to act.
Mueller was captured in Syria and was believed to be held by ISIS, including by then-leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, and was killed in 2015 in uncertain circumstances after failed rescue attempts.
Ms Harris criticised Mr Pence for the decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal and not standing up to Russia.
The social media attention during the debate, however, pivoted from policy to a fly that landed on Mr Pence’s head where it remained for more than two minutes. The Biden campaign was quick to capitalise on the sensation storming Twitter and Facebook, using the fly for fund-raising efforts.
While it was a moment of levity in a policy-heavy debate, watchers pointed out that the easy distraction encapsulated how much they saw the debates as affecting the minds of voters.
Election analyst David Wasserman joked, “That an insect stole the show pretty well sums up how much this debate will alter the trajectory of the race.”
A CNN poll of debate watchers showed 59 per cent believed Ms Harris won the debate and 38 per cent saw Mr Pence as the winner. Mr Trump, however, had a different take.
“Mike Pence WON BIG!” he tweeted.
The Trump campaign, trailing in most key swing states, needed a game-changer to alter their dismal path to re-election.
This did not translate at the latest head-to-head despite both candidates holding their own and sticking to their attack lines 26 days before the vote.
With Mr Trump’s Covid-19 infection on Friday, it remains unclear if the next two meetings between him and Mr Biden will go ahead later this month.