WATCH: Mike Pence, Kamala Harris clash over Trump’s coronavirus record at US vice presidential debate

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SALT LAKE CITY: Republican Mike Pence and Democratic challenger Kamala Harris squared off on Thursday (Oct 8) morning Singapore time in the only vice presidential debate ahead of the Nov 3 US election.

Pence and Harris clashed over the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic during their debate, as the White House struggled to contain an outbreak that has infected President Donald Trump and dozens of others.

The policy-heavy debate stood in stark contrast to last week’s chaotic presidential debate, with Harris going on the attack on topics from healthcare to the economy, climate change and foreign policy, and Pence defending the Republican administration’s nearly four-year-old record.

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said as the debate began at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

In response, Pence defended the US administration’s efforts to battle the disease, including Trump’s decision in late January to restrict travel from the pandemic’s epicentre in China.

“I want the American people to know that from the very first day, President Donald Trump has put the health of America first,” he said.

READ: ‘Symptom-free’ Trump back in Oval Office, says catching COVID-19 was ‘blessing from God’

The two candidates were separated by plexiglass shields, a reminder of the pandemic that has claimed 210,000 American lives and devastated the economy.

Harris played the traditional attack role of the vice presidential candidate, faulting the Trump administration for trying to invalidate the Affordable Care Act healthcare law in the midst of a pandemic and assailing Trump for reportedly paying US$750 a year in federal income taxes as president.

“When I first heard about it, I literally said, ‘You mean US$750,000?'” Harris said, referring to a New York Times investigation. “And it was like, ‘No – US$750’.”

TAX BATTLE

Pence sought to counter her attacks by turning the focus to the economy and tax policy, saying: “On day one, Joe Biden’s going to raise your taxes.” Harris responded by saying that Biden has vowed not to raise taxes on anyone making less than US$400,000 a year.

The vice president also asserted that Biden would ban fracking and embrace the Green New Deal, a massive environmental proposal backed by liberal Democrats. Biden, however, has disavowed both of those positions.

As in the presidential showdown last week, Wednesday’s debate was dominated by discussion of the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn.

Asked about a potential vaccine, Harris said she would only trust the word of scientists, rather than that of Trump, who has promoted unproven treatments in the past.

“If the doctors tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it, absolutely,” she said. “But if Donald Trump tells us to take it, I’m not taking it.”

Pence fired back, accusing Harris of undermining public confidence in vaccines.

“I think it is unconscionable,” he said. “Stop playing politics with people’s lives.”

READ: Biden says next US presidential debate should be called off if Trump still has COVID-19

RACE AN ISSUE

Harris, the first black woman to serve on a major-party presidential ticket, also attacked Pence on race relations, criticising Trump for turning down an opportunity to denounce white supremacists at last week’s debate with Biden.

In response, Pence accused the media of taking Trump’s words out of context and said the president had repeatedly disavowed racist groups.

The age of the two presidential candidates – either Trump, 74, or Biden, 77, would be the oldest president in US history – added weight to the debate, with both Pence and Harris seeking to show they were capable of assuming the office. Trump’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis has only made that issue more salient.

The two candidates also jockeyed for position in their respective parties; both are widely seen as future presidential candidates, whatever the outcome of November’s contest.

Biden leads Trump in national opinion polls and has an advantage of 12 percentage points in the latest Reuters/Ipsos survey of likely voters. 

READ: Trump calls off COVID-19 relief talks with Democrats

Polls show the race to be closer in some of the election battleground states that could determine the winner, although a Reuters/Ipsos poll on Wednesday showed Biden leading Trump in pivotal Florida.

Harris, who was on the biggest stage of her political career, is a US senator from California who was picked by Biden in August as his running mate. The daughter of immigrants – her father from Jamaica and her mother from India – Harris is the first black woman nominated by a major party for vice president as well as the first person of Asian descent.

Pence, a former conservative radio host who debated then-Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine in 2016, is a former US congressman and Indiana governor who has steadfastly defended Trump during his tumultuous presidency.

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