Democratic Senator Kamala Harris cemented her place in US history on Wednesday as the first woman of colour and the first Indian-American person to participate in a vice-presidential debate.
Republican vice-president Mike Pence, the incumbent Harris is seeking to unseat, sought to live up to the expectations of defending President Donald Trump and his administration’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed more than 211,000 Americans.
Despite tensions between the two camps, both Harris and Pence debated relatively more calmly compared to last month’s acrimonious opening debate between Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and President Donald Trump that had devolved into name-calling.
As a stark reminder of the times we are living in, Harris and Pence were separated by plexiglass barriers in an auditorium where guests had to wear face coverings, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
Social distancing norms were enforced far more rigorously than in the opening presidential debate, at which Trump’s guests, including his family members, hadn’t worn face coverings.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said, landing the first punch of the night, referring to the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic.
“I want the American people to know that from the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of America first,” said Pence, defending the American president and himself as head of the White House task force, appointed by Trump, to lead the fight against the worst public health crisis in over a century.
With at least 211,000 dead and over 7.5 million infected with the coronavirus in the US, and Trump, the first lady and a growing number of people in their circle testing positive for Covid-19, the pandemic was the top issue at the vice-presidential debate.
Harris and Pence also clashed over climate change, trade war with China, economy, racism, healthcare, Supreme Court, women’s right to abortion, and religion.
As the running mate of Biden who was leading in national polls, Harris was expected to play it safe and not hand the Trump campaign a lifeline. And she did just that, overlooking several opportunities to attack Pence, much to the disappointment of many supporters who had expected to see flashes of her prosecutorial skills.
“The debate was civil and constructive as compared to the presidential debate,” said M R Rangaswami, founder of Indiaspora, a leading Indian-American advocacy group. “Kamala and Pence delivered their positions passionately and we now have 27 days to decide.”
Puneet Ahluwalia, a Republican running for Lt Governor in Virginia, a state that used to be Republican but has widely come to be considered Democratic lately, said, “VP Pence clearly distinguished himself by highlighting the exemplary job done for the American people by President Trump and his administration.”